Israeli, Palestinian negotiators agree to have peace talks in D.C.

Agreements reached on West Bank pullback, other nagging problems

March 09, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians overcame their latest breakdown in negotiations yesterday, agreeing to move the talks to Washington and reaffirming their goal of reaching a final peace deal by Sept. 13.

After meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah with Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross announced that officials from the two sides would "intensify their negotiations" after the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which ends March 19, with new talks at the chief negotiator level.

"This is an important step in reaffirming the Israeli and Palestinian commitment to work in a spirit of partnership and mutual confidence," Ross said.

Agreement was also apparently reached, but not announced, on several nagging problems that had led a furious Arafat to walk out of a meeting with Barak and freeze negotiations last month. This included details of an interim, 6.1 percent Israeli pullback from the West Bank, and another Israeli withdrawal this summer.

Yesterday's progress came against the backdrop of rising frustration and unrest in the Palestinian territories marked by sporadic violence. Officials on both sides feared the unrest could escalate in the months ahead without concrete gains from the peace process.

In Israel, officials have expressed worries that not enough attention was being paid to reaching a deal with the Palestinians.

Shifting the talks to Washington gives at least the appearance of stronger American involvement, which the Palestinians have long demanded and which Israel has resisted.

In a gesture of reassurance to Arafat, Ross said, "President Clinton and Secretary [of State Madeleine K.] Albright have said the Palestinian issue constitutes the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict."

However, it's unlikely that the change of location will alter the Clinton administration's long-standing reluctance to pressure Israel into making concessions.

The talks so far haven't made a dent in the major problems that Israel and the Palestinians must solve if they are to reach a final settlement by September. These include both sides' claims to Jerusalem, the right of return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and whether to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Arafat agreed to stick to Barak's plan to forge the agreement in two steps; creating a "framework" agreement, with a new target date of May, and leaving details to be worked out in the months ahead.

Barak and Arafat will meet today in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, with President Hosni Mubarak, giving their revived talks the stamp of approval of one of the most important Arab leaders.

This is particularly important for Israel, which hopes to dampen the impact of next week's Arab foreign ministers' meeting. That meeting is being held in Lebanon to show solidarity after recent Israeli airstrikes that knocked out three power stations.

Yesterday's Barak-Arafat talks appear to have resolved the cause of last month's flare-up over the land Israel chose to turn over in the interim withdrawal. Israel indicated it would adjust the territory, most of it around the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron. But Israel is still unlikely to turn over villages near Jerusalem that the Palestinians had wanted.

Israel also committed itself conditionally to a further withdrawal from West Bank land, in keeping with previous accords, but gave no indication of how much. The earlier agreements require that, before a final deal is reached, Israel will withdraw from all of the West Bank except for settlements, East Jerusalem and designated military sites. In recent months, Israel has taken over more West Bank land for military use.

The two sides also agreed on opening a second "safe passage" route for Palestinians to use in traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. In another gesture, Israel is expected to release soon another group of Palestinian prisoners.

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