Sides try to restart Mideast talks

Diplomats meeting to pave the way for further negotiations

July 28, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Moving quickly to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process after inconclusive talks at Camp David, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials disclosed plans yesterday for a flurry of diplomatic parleys to pave the way for the resumption of negotiations this summer.

Israeli negotiator Oded Eran is to meet chief Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat on Sunday, five days after two weeks of talks at Camp David broke up with no agreement.

Israel disclosed plans yesterday for Prime Minister Ehud Barak to visit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. The State Department said it will send Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker on a tour of Arab capitals to seek support for new negotiations.

Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed the Erekat-Eran meeting, which apparently is designed to keep channels of communication open, not to grapple with the difficult issues separating the two sides.

"We will continue the negotiations in good faith in the hope of achieving a compromise agreement on all issues no later than Sept. 13," Erekat told reporters.

Sept. 13 is the self-imposed deadline to resolve all obstacles blocking a permanent peace accord. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has threatened to unilaterally declare independence after Sept. 13 if no agreement seems near.

While U.S. officials said they had no part in setting up Sunday's meeting in the Middle East, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said: "It's encouraging that both parties are anxious to get back to the negotiating table."

Yesterday's developments continued to allay fears that the failure to strike a deal at Camp David would prompt a freeze between Israel and the Palestinians.

Accusatory rhetoric has been largely absent since the talks broke down over gaps on the future of Jerusalem and the fate of 3.7 million Palestinian refugees. Both sides have pledged a willingness to continue bargaining.

But the peace process could easily go cold, as illustrated by talks this year between Israel and Syria. After negotiations between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in Shepherdstown, W. Va., failed to yield a deal, lower-level meetings were supposed to impart momentum until the principals could reconvene.

They never did. The leak of a draft peace treaty to an Israeli newspaper soured relations between the sides and not even a visit by President Clinton with Syrian leader Hafez el Assad in Geneva could revive the negotiations.

While the Palestinians and Israelis seem to be "working together to minimize the fallout from the conclusion of the talks, I don't think we should minimize that there's hard work to be done if we're going to get an agreement by Sept. 13," a White House official said.

Barak, whose governing coalition has been damaged by his bargaining with Arafat, faced new political troubles yesterday when Foreign Minister David Levy hinted that he might resign over concessions offered at Camp David.

Analysts believe Barak will survive a no-confidence motion in Israel's parliament Monday, but his fall would deal the peace negotiations a huge setback.

U.S. officials said special envoy Dennis Ross is expected to travel to the Middle East in coming days to assess chances for a resumption of talks, though no schedule has been set. He will visit the primary states, Walker the Arab neighbors.

The officials said Walker would travel early next week to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly other Arab nations. A stop in Damascus to consult with new Syrian President Bashar el Assad "is possible, but that would be a stretch," said one official.

Arabic leaders are consulting among themselves. Jordan announced yesterday that King Abdullah II will meet with Mubarak in Cairo on Monday to discuss the negotiations.

Jordan's foreign minister, Abdul-Illah Khatib, promised more diplomatic communication among Arab states in coming days "to coordinate a unified stance toward the peace process."

The wooing of Arab leaders is seen by U.S. officials as crucial to the peace process. For Arafat, Arab nations hold both the purse strings - in the case of Saudi Arabia - and moral authority - in the case of Egypt - to shore up an accord.

Arafat, who was criticized by U.S. officials for failing to give as much ground in negotiations as Barak, always has accounted for the weight of Arabic opinion. He made several calls to Arab leaders while at Camp David and met with Mubarak after the talks.

Walker and Barak presumably will pressure Mubarak to support a compromise that would require Arafat to accept something less than 100 percent of East Jerusalem.

"We'll encourage them to encourage the spirit of reflection and compromise that needs to take place," said State Department spokesman Phil Reeker.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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