Feb. deadline for Mideast agreement unlikely to be met

Israeli negotiator says final Palestinian accord can be reached by Sept.


JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians will intensify their peace negotiations over the next few weeks, but it is growing increasingly unlikely that they will reach a framework agreement by the goal of mid-February, Israel's senior negotiator said yesterday.

"If I have to be realistic, it is difficult to reach this date," Oded Eran, the negotiator, said in a breakfast meeting with foreign journalists.

Eran was acknowledging publicly what Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials have been saying privately for weeks, and the way he talked made it seem that he assumed the deadline would not be met. This represents a deflation of the hope of rapid progress that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressed in the fall.

But Eran said he believed that a full, permanent peace accord could be forged by September. That is the final deadline set in the most recent interim peace accord, and the date by which Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has said he would make a unilateral declaration of statehood if the talks were not completed.

Palestinian officials said Saturday that Arafat, Barak and President Clinton would meet next weekend in Davos, Switzerland, at the worldwide economic meeting. Senior Israeli and U.S. officials said the meeting was not confirmed. It would be the first three-way meeting since the leaders met in Oslo, Norway, in November.

The United States is not prepared to invite the parties to the Washington area for the Camp David-style summit meeting that was proposed in Oslo as a possibility for February, U.S. officials said.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are too far apart on every issue -- borders, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem, refugees, security and water, a U.S. official said. There are no working papers on any issue.

The working presumption is that the Israelis and the Palestinians will use the Feb. 13 deadline as a catalyst to redouble their efforts in the next 20 days. American peace envoys could travel to the region to oversee intensified talks, a U.S. official said -- but probably only if the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which were suspended last week, are not reactivated.

Eran said he felt that the Israeli-Palestinian talks were taking place in the shadow of Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which inevitably divided the peacemaking attention of Barak and the U.S. peace team. He said he had to fight Barak's attempts to raid his negotiating teams to assemble committees to meet with the Syrians.

Eran, who was Israel's ambassador to Jordan before he was assigned to oversee the peace negotiations, said there was "nothing sacred" in the original Feb. 13 deadline for the broad-brush framework agreement.

"The issue is, can we bridge the gaps?" he said. "Now we are on the 23rd of January. We have three weeks to ready an agreement, if we stick to the original plan. If I have to be realistic, it is difficult to reach this date. But we can reach the two accords," the framework and the comprehensive agreements, "in the eight months until September."

When asked, Eran said he was not concerned about Palestinian unrest if the February deadline was not met. He said that Arafat had never been keen about Barak's idea of aiming for a framework agreement halfway through the final status negotiations. Arafat's eyes, he said, have always been trained on the full final accord.

A senior Palestinian official agreed that Arafat did not put much stock in the framework idea. But if the deadline was broken, he said, Palestinians would see it as "another Israeli promise broken."

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