Israeli-Palestinian peace talks break down

Dispute over land transfer puts deadline in doubt for framework accord

February 04, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza -- Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fell into disarray yesterday in an angry dispute over a land transfer and Palestinian complaints that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wants to delay a final deal for months, even well into next year.

The breakdown makes it practically impossible for the two sides to meet their Feb. 13 deadline on a "framework" for a final settlement of the 50-year conflict, and it undercuts President Clinton's hopes of a comprehensive Middle East peace before he leaves office.

The meeting between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at this border crossing between Israel and Palestinian-controlled Gaza broke off without a scheduled joint news conference, and Arafat's motorcade quickly left.

Israeli officials said the dispute centered on the kind of territory that Israel plans to hand over in its next scheduled West Bank pullback. Palestinians wanted to expand the territory that they already control and gain a West Bank village near Jerusalem, which both claim as their capital.

"We apparently cannot do this," Barak told the Labor Party yesterday, speaking of the Palestinian demand for control of either Abu Dis, Alram or Azzaria on the outskirts of Jerusalem. "We shall wait and see how it will be possible to settle the dispute."

`It's a real crisis'

But Palestinians said the impasse went to the heart of the whole Israeli approach.

"This shows that they want to close the whole chapter of negotiations with us," chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said in an interview. "It's a real crisis."

The result is stalled Israeli-Arab peace talks on two fronts. High-level negotiations between Israel and Syria also broke off last month, and no date has been set for resuming them.

Abed Rabbo said the Israelis want a series of delays in completing the talks. He said they wanted to put off the final withdrawal called for in the Oslo peace agreements until the time of a final agreement.

He said Israel also wants to delay a framework agreement, perhaps until September, and put off a complete final-status deal until "nine months after that date, after September." This would put it five months after a new administration takes office in Washington, adding a new element of uncertainty.

A senior Israeli official in Barak's office said Abed Rabbo had misunderstood and gotten the Israeli timetable all wrong. He said that the framework accord would slip by only weeks and that Israel was still aiming for a final deal in September.

Palestinians, noting Israel's vastly greater power, have appealed to the Clinton administration to take a stronger role in mediating the talks, as it has between Israel and and Syria. Their tactics appeared to be aimed in part at prodding Dennis Ross, Clinton's top Mideast envoy, into a stronger role than he has recently been willing to take on their behalf.

Ross, who arrived in the region Wednesday, was to meet with Arafat in Gaza last night, but the problems seemed too big for him to resolve in one visit.

`Not the correct thing to do'

Israel is resisting a stronger U.S. role, which in the past has brought U.S. pressure on Israel for concessions. Foreign Minister David Levy said that Americans couldn't substitute for the two parties directly involved.

Clinton has offered to arrange a Camp David-style summit to resolve final differences over a framework agreement, putting the two sides in the glare of an international spotlight. But Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon told Israel radio that this was not realistic.

"With the current situation, going to a summit in the United States when the gaps are still so wide is not the correct thing to do," he said.

The land transfer problem involves 6.1 percent of the West Bank that was originally supposed to be handed over in January. The dispute was a repeat of what occurred several months ago, when the Palestinians refused to accept a previous 5 percent Israeli redeployment.

When that dispute was resolved, Israel promised to "listen" to Palestinian demands for which land would be included in the next withdrawal but said the decision was Israel's alone. Palestinians said they expected more of a say in the decision.

Generally, Israel has been willing to turn over relatively unpopulated territory in isolated pockets. Palestinians want full control of populated areas that are contiguous to each other and form the outlines of a Palestinian state.

They hoped that under the Oslo accords, they would have control of much of the West Bank before hard bargaining began on the most difficult issues: control of largely Arab East Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, borders, and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel wants to withhold the most important territory as a bargaining chip to gain Palestinian concessions in final-status talks.

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