- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators opened talks yesterday on the toughest issues between them, for the first time airing differences that have been deferred for more than eight years since a 1992 negotiating breakthrough in Oslo.

Among those issues are the fate of Palestinian refugees and jurisdiction over Jerusalem's Old City, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The talks began with a breaking of bread at Washington's Bolling Air Force Base, where the sides are meeting in seclusion.

"If they can have a week in an isolated location away from the limelight … breakthroughs can occur," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.

"This is a place to start to discuss all of" the remaining issues, said Mr. Rubin, who warned reporters not to expect any sudden resolution of the obstacles.

Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev said the aim of the talks is to agree on a framework for peace by May, leading to a final peace pact in September.

"The most complex issues are on the table," Mr. Regev said. "Jerusalem, refugees, Palestinian statehood, the future of Jewish settlements, final borders and water.

"These are not easy issues. We don't have any illusions about them. But the current round of talks allows us to look at areas of agreement and disagreement and to better prepare a future meeting" of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

In the eight years since secret peace talks began in Oslo, Israel has given to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) all of the Gaza Strip and 41 percent of the West Bank. Those lands were seized from Egypt and Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

Israel began handing over the latest 6.1 percent of West Bank land yesterday.

As a sign of the bitter struggle over every inch of soil, Israel refused to hand over the coveted East Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, where a large hall suitable for a future Palestinian parliament house was recently built.

Other areas more distant from Jerusalem were part of the package.

"They did not get Abu Dis," said an Israeli source. "That's the card for Israel to play" in the final status talks that began yesterday.

Israel remains adamant that even if it gives up Abu Dis in a final agreement, it will never relinquish any part of the Old City.

"Israel's position on Jerusalem is it must remain the united capital of Israel," said Mr. Regev.

The Israeli team in Washington, led by Oded Eran, and the Palestinians led by Yasser Abed Rabbo, are staying at the Air Force base directly across the Potomac from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Reporters are barred from the base in an effort to allow deliberations on difficult issues without press amplification.

U.S. Middle East mediators Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller shared lunch with the two teams at the Bolling Officer's Club yesterday. Mr. Rubin said the two Americans were to meet with the delegations all week, but the U.S. role would be supportive rather than active.

At the end of the week the negotiators will go home for consultations, just as President Clinton tries to reactivate a second peace track by meeting Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva.

Mr. Clinton, who is on official visits this week in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, will stop off en route to Geneva in the Persian Gulf state of Oman for refueling and a meeting with Sultan Qaboos bid Said. The sultan has allowed Israel to open a trade office in Muscat and has been a moderating, pro-peace voice in recent years.

A Palestinian official said that he hopes in the Bolling talks to press a claim for the hand-over of all the remaining 59 percent of the West Bank.

Mr. Regev, however, said that was unlikely since Israel expects to retain a security strip along the Jordan River, a second strip along its 1948 border with the West Bank and portions of land holding the biggest clusters of Israeli settlements.

"The amount of land in the third and final withdrawal in June will depend on how forthcoming the Palestinians are to Israel's demands," said an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The size and shape of what will one day be a Palestinian state will depend on the talks that began yesterday, he said.

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