Arafat, with reservations, accepts Clinton proposals

Palestinian leader offers new hope for Middle East peace

January 04, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In another glimmer of hope for the tortured Middle East peace process, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has accepted U.S. proposals for a compromise between the Israelis and Palestinians - but with significant qualifications, officials said yesterday.

Arafat told President Clinton by telephone yesterday morning "that he had accepted the president's parameters," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert. "At the same time, he expressed some reservations. What that means is that both sides have now accepted the president's ideas with some reservations."

The unanswered question was whether those reservations amounted to a rejection of Clinton's proposals, despite each side's show of cooperation and hints at renewed negotiations.

As evidence of progress, White House officials cited the planned Washington visit today of chief Israeli peace negotiator Gilead Sher, who was expected to consult with U.S. officials on how to stem continuing Middle East violence as well as how to jump-start the peace talks.

The Palestinians also were expected to dispatch an envoy to Washington. But, as in the case of Sher, the talks were expected to focus as much or more on containing violence as on achieving breakthroughs in negotiations.

In Israel, dovish Justice Minister Yossi Beilin suggested that direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could resume soon if violence in the region subsides.

"We will be prepared to meet with the Palestinians and reach, with the help of the United States in coming days, understandings and agreements that will be able to prepare for the more detailed negotiations that will lead to a permanent peace settlement between them and us," Beilin said on Israeli television.

But huge obstacles block the way to a final Israeli-Palestinian peace, which has been the subject of intensive, on-again, off-again talks for months.

Clinton, who has been instrumental to the Middle East peace process, leaves office in less than three weeks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has made seeking peace with the Arabs a goal of his administration, is up for re-election Feb. 6 and is trailing badly in opinion polls behind hard-line Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

"It may be an act of providential miracle that can produce a full deal between us and the Palestinians in the remaining days," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. "Nevertheless, I'm not going to underestimate the importance of the attitude that Chairman Arafat has shown today."

Because of the breakdown in the peace process and the Arab-Israeli violence that has killed more than 350 people, mostly Palestinians, "the risk of war [with Arab neighbors] is greater than it has been during the last three years," Barak said yesterday.

Clinton's "bridging proposal" over the wide chasm separating Barak and Arafat would renew intensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the next two weeks with a goal of giving the Palestinians sovereignty over the Jerusalem plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, site of the city's most revered Muslim shrines, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The nearby Western Wall, which once held up the Israelites' Second Temple, would remain in Israeli hands.

In return, Arafat would give up the right of return to Israel for more than 3 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents who were displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Either issue could be a deal-breaker.

"The refugees are the nub of the problem," said Kenneth Stein, a Middle East specialist at the Carter Center in Atlanta. "This is something that is hard for Americans to understand. The depth of commitment that Palestinians have to this notion of return is passionate, and for most of them there is no compromise."

Indeed, Palestinian officials continued their denunciations of Clinton's proposal yesterday, apparently contradicting Arafat.

"The Palestinian leadership will never accept the American ideas," Hussein al-Sheik, a militia leader in Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told the Associated Press.

In addition to the refugee issue, Arafat had four reservations about the U.S. proposal, said Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and an adviser to the Palestinians.

Arafat is concerned that Israel wants sovereignty over the ground beneath the Muslim shrines; he wants to see maps of a proposed Palestinian state; he opposes an Israeli component of an international peacekeeping force that would occupy the Jordan river valley after a treaty, and he wants to make sure that any framework agreement preceding a final deal doesn't declare an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abington said.

Barak, too, has expressed serious reservations about Clinton's proposals, saying he will not yield sovereignty of the Temple Mount to Arafat.

Arafat was scheduled to meet with Arab foreign ministers today in Cairo, Egypt, and U.S. officials expressed hope that Egypt, Jordan and other moderate Arab states would support compromise with the Israelis.

But U.S. officials promised not to restart negotiations without a reasonable chance of success.

Israeli reservations concerning Clinton's proposals include security worries raised by the army about the loss of a substantial military presence in the Jordan valley and about the potential vulnerability of Jewish settlements and a politically reconfigured Jerusalem.

"Without question, for both these leaders, to cut a deal is to deeply divide their own people," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum. "To fail to cut a deal means to plunge toward what could be an exponential increase in violence."

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