- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arrived in Washington yesterday for talks at Bolling Air Force Base aimed at achieving a Middle East peace deal before President Clinton leaves office and Israelis go to the polls.

But neither side was optimistic about the talks, which were to begin late yesterday after both negotiating teams arrived in town.

The Palestinian-Israeli meeting is the fourth since since the collapse of the Camp David summit in July over Palestinian demands to control the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, in Old Jerusalem.

An Israeli official said for the first time yesterday that Israel was ready to give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

"We are approaching a historic moment of compromise on Jerusalem, and we must make painful concessions, renouncing one way or another our sovereignty over the Temple Mount if necessary," said Israeli Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir, according to Agence France-Presse.

"What is vital for us is to obtain the most important thing, the renunciation by the Palestinians of the right of return of refugees to territory under Israeli sovereignty," she added.

Analyst David Makovsky, however, said that the offer could be an example of "creative ambiguity" and that it might not mean giving up all Israeli control over the Temple Mount.

"There may be a Solomonic solution to the Temple Mount, but it's hard to believe that such a solution would involve one side renouncing all their claims," said Mr. Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"These symbols are deeply rooted on both sides. It seems a diplomatic solution would factor them in rather than have one side concede its touchstone of identity."

A Palestinian official said that even if Israel gave up the Temple Mount, the Palestinian Authority (PA) would not sign away the right of 3.7 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, which they fled in 1948.

An Israeli official in Washington refused to discuss the reported offer to give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Instead, he insisted that the Palestinians must stop all violent attacks on Israeli occupation troops and civilians before talks can go forward.

"There won't be a political breakthrough as long as the violence continues at its current level," said the Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Before there can be a return to substantive negotiations, there has to be a cease-fire."

Palestinians, however, had a different agenda their demands for all the land Israel seized from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war and for a return of the refugees.

"To be honest, I do not have high expectations," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, upon arrival yesterday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The chief representative of the PA in Washington, Hasan Abdel Rahman, said ending the violence was not a condition for renewing the peace process.

"You don't make peace with your friends you make peace with enemies and adversaries," he said in an interview yesterday.

"There is determination, from our side at least, to reach an agreement if the Israeli side is willing to comply with what is required."

Mr. Rahman said the Palestinians would not agree to another interim agreement to end fighting and put off the difficult issues.

"We will accept no partial agreement and no delays for any of the issues," he said. "It has to be a comprehensive agreement and a permanent agreement that must lead to establishment of an independent Palestinian state, separate from Israel, on the 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital."

At Bolling, the U.S. negotiators, led by Dennis Ross, were to meet separately with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said that afterward there would be trilateral meetings including Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. The talks could go on for several days with negotiators, including Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, due to spend the nights at the Air Force base.

Reporters have been denied access to the base and to the talks.

Mr. Reeker said President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright were expected to meet with the two sides "at some point."

In the Middle East yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak sent left-wing political leaders to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was also to hold talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Barak is running for re-election in February.

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