Arafat, Israelis to meet in U.S.

Goal is to close gaps, pave the way for three-way summit

June 07, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The United States is summoning Yasser Arafat and Israeli negotiators to Washington next week in a major effort to overcome steep obstacles to a peace accord.

The U.S. hope is to narrow the gaps sufficiently for President Clinton to conduct a three-way summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat that would formally end the 50-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But officials acknowledged yesterday at the end of a two-day visit here by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright that they're nowhere near ready to move to a summit.

"We are taking this one step at a time," Albright said.

In what all sides view as a race against time in the final months of the Clinton presidency, Israelis and Palestinians are staking out hard-line positions on the toughest issues blocking peace.

"There is no agreement and conclusion on even one of the issues," said Barak adviser Danny Yatom. The two sides have not even discussed the issue of Jerusalem.

The tension is exacerbated by a threat to the survival of Barak's government, with support growing for a move in Israel's parliament to call early elections. The first of four votes is set for today. Barak is at loggerheads over domestic funding with a key member of his coalition, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which could side with his opponents.

The possibility of renewed violence, such as the riots that rocked the West Bank and Gaza three weeks ago, continues to lurk in the background.

Next week's talks, starting Monday, will be led by Israeli Minister Shlomo Ben Ami and Ahmad Qurei, known as Abu Ala, the speaker of the Palestinian legislature. For the past six weeks, the two have been holding unofficial talks in Stockholm, Sweden, and in the Middle East while the official channel foundered.

No site for the U.S. meetings has been disclosed. Arafat is due at the White House two days later for meetings with Clinton.

Some analysts here say Arafat might be more inclined to make concessions in discussions with Clinton than he would with Barak. An official suggested that Clinton or Albright would stay in touch with Barak by phone.

Both sides have agreed to seek a final peace in two stages. The first is a framework accord that would basically resolve the main issues, end the conflict, and set the stage for creation of a Palestinian state. The second stage would be a peace treaty. The summit would aim to produce the framework accord.

The most difficult issues, and the opposing sides' positions, are:

Jerusalem. Arafat wants traditionally Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Barak says an undivided Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital.

Territory. Arafat says all of the West Bank and Gaza should become Palestine and that Israel should withdraw to the borders it held before the 1967 Middle East war. Barak wants to keep a reported 7 percent to 10 percent of the West Bank, including land along the Jordan River and the main Jewish settlements.

Refugees: Arafat says Palestinians should have the right to return to their original homes in Israel. Barak refuses to allow their return to Israel.

Although there had been expectations of a three-way summit by late June, a senior U.S. official said no time had been set. Adding to the time pressure is the need to reach a deal in time for a major foreign aid package to clear Congress in the fall.

The senior U.S. official said the summit would be important in getting the leaders to make the toughest decisions, and that one could be held even if there were no certainty of a deal emerging.

"What I can say at this stage is, we're not there," the official said. "We're not at the point where, if we brought them together, in our judgment it would be productive. It wouldn't produce an outcome."

Arafat has vowed to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally if no agreement is reached by September.

On another front, Albright will meet today in Cairo, Egypt, with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa amid hints that Syria wants to restart its own deadlocked negotiations with Israel. However, Albright won't be taking any new proposals from Israel, and Syria has not publicly softened its positions.

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