JERUSALEM -- Israelis and Palestinians broke off talks yesterday, leaving an apparent deadlock in negotiations over a new deal to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.
Although a draft settlement agreement had been typed and titled, the discussions were stalled over a dispute on the number of Palestinian political prisoners Israel was willing to release as part of the deal and a new timetable for a final round of talks to conclude the historic experience in peace-making.
The dispute threatened to scuttle plans to sign a new addendum to the Wye River peace agreement at a special ceremony in Cairo late today, presided over by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Albright, who was to arrive in Cairo today, planned her Mideast trip to coincide with the resumption of the U.S.-brokered Wye peace deal.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat left the Netherlands early yesterday to return to the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's security Cabinet met late last night to discuss the status of the talks.
Without a new agreement, Barak said he would implement the Wye deal as written. That would mean any changes and improvements negotiated in the past month would be forfeited, according to a member of the Israeli negotiating team who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We start almost everything from zero," he said.
The negotiator complained that the Palestinians had taken "an impossible deadlock position." Barak wants the deal finished before both sides meet Albright, rather than getting her engaged in the last-minute negotiations. He has said previously that he wants Washington to play a lesser role in the peace talks.
The Wye agreement signed last fall requires Israel to give up all or part of its control over more West Bank land, release 650 Palestinian prisoners, approve the construction of a Gaza port and permit Palestinians to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- commitments first outlined in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
The Palestinian obligations included fighting terrorism, reducing the size of its police force and confiscating illegal weapons.
Shortly after Barak took office, he proposed a new timetable for the resumption of final status talks to an improved Wye agreement -- coming closer to the Palestinian definition of the types of prisoners who would be released and possibly giving up more land. The two sides have said for days that they were on the verge of signing a deal.
They worked into the early morning hours yesterday to resolve their differences on two issues -- the release of the Palestinian security prisoners and the timetable for the final status talks that will settle the thorniest problems -- such as the future boundaries of a Palestinian-controlled territory, the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
But late yesterday Israel said it had gone as far as it could go, saying it had not received "satisfactory answers" from the Palestinians on the outstanding issues, the Israeli participant in the talks said.
The prime minister's office issued this statement shortly before 3 p.m.:
"From the Israeli government's perspective, the negotiations have concluded. If it is not announced otherwise by this evening's Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will conclude that the Palestinians are interested in implementing the Wye Agreement as written, and will act accordingly."
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking at the King David Hotel, said he put forth proposals to bridge the gaps.
"We have shown determination, both of us, to pursue a line to solve [all the issues] through the civilized mechanics of negotiation," Erekat said.
From the start, the release of Palestinian prisoners has bedeviled the talks. It is an issue that raises passions on both sides -- the Palestinians want the freedom of the young men who fought the Israeli occupation and Israel refuses to give up the ones who killed Israelis.
Wye called for the release of 750 Palestinian prisoners. The first releases took place last fall under the Netanyahu government. Then, Israel released 250 prisoners, but only 98 were security prisoners, inmates the Palestinians refer to as political prisoners because they fought the Israeli occupation up until the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Under Barak, Israel offered to release 350 political prisoners in two stages -- a number greater than what the Israelis said they were required to free under Wye.
Adding the 350 to a previous release of 151 security prisoners and the 98 freed by Netanyahu, meant a total of 599 security prisoners would have been released since November 1998, the Israeli negotiator said. The Palestinians wanted 50 more, even though the Israelis maintained they had no more to give under the criteria adopted, he said. Israel has refused to release any murderers of Israelis or members of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.