- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that Israel was prepared to accept President Clinton's Middle East peace proposal without changes on condition the Palestinians did too.
In an interview on Israel Channel Two television, Mr. Barak said: "The natural tendency is of course to want a lot of changes… . If the other side agrees to accept the [ideas] as they are, then we too will need to accept them.
"I am not sure, however, that that is the situation and at the moment I don't known what the answers of the sides will be," Mr. Barak added.
Officials from both sides have said Mr. Clinton's proposal included compromises on the sovereignty of Arab east Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and the amount of territory handed over to the Palestinians from occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Both sides have been asked to tell Mr. Clinton by tomorrow whether his proposals are an acceptable basis for continuing negotiations.
Mr. Barak is racing the clock on a peace accord. Only six weeks from now, he faces Likud party leader Ariel Sharon in an election battle, and polls suggest Mr. Sharon is leading by a wide margin.
By standards of the past three months during which at least 345 persons, mainly Palestinians, have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday was an unusually quiet day, with neither serious clashes nor new fatalities reported by nightfall.
Still, the violence overshadowed Christmas Day celebrations in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus. Devoid of decorations and almost empty of tourists, the West Bank town expected earlier to be thronged with visitors for this millennial Christmas hosted a sad, subdued holiday with only the bare minimum of religious observances.
"I can't bear the idea that Bethlehem should be shut down for Christmas," said visitor Janet Maxwell, from Inverness in Scotland. But she added that it didn't seem right to celebrate.
The violence also cast a pall over holidays this week for both Jews and Muslims.
Most Palestinians planned only low-key observances for one of the year's most important holidays, the three-day Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The date will be determined by the sighting of the crescent moon.
Jews, meanwhile, were midway through the eight days of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, when candles are lit nightly to commemorate the victory of an outnumbered band of Jewish fighters.
On the negotiating front, Mr. Barak faced an uphill battle to win public support for concessions to the Palestinians. Opinion polls published yesterday suggested Israelis were deeply divided over the reported terms of President Clinton's peace plan.
Israel is said to be willing to make compromises on sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the borders of a Palestinian state. In return, it expects Palestinians to scale back their long-standing demand that Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the Jewish state's war of independence and subsequent fighting be allowed to return to homes in what is now Israel.
Mr. Clinton was pressing his case as tomorrow's deadline neared; the White House said he spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by telephone yesterday, before a meeting between Mr. Mubarek and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Israel has been more upbeat than the Palestinians. "We are talking about proposals which I think, on the face of it, are reasonable," Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher told Israel's Channel Two.
The Palestinians, though, have signaled they might hold out for more. "I believe what was offered up until now from the Israeli side is not the maximum they can give," Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker, said in an interview.

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