- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

JERUSALEM Middle East peace negotiators say an American bridging proposal is expected as early as this week if a wave of violence is halted, leaving hope that the peace process will survive the region's bloodiest clashes since 1996.
At least 29 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have died in four days of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, touched off by the visit Thursday of opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the region's most incendiary patch of land Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
But even as the violence surged, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat found time for a trip to Cairo to consult with President Hosni Mubarak on the latest peace talk developments.
"The basic reality is that nobody can afford to stop the peace process because nobody has a better alternative, and that's been the underlying truth for many years now," said Israeli political analyst Mark Heller.
The focus of the past days' violence, as of the stalled peace talks, is the Temple Mount, a 35-acre plateau in Jerusalem's Old City that holds Jewish and Muslim shrines.
Muslims pray at mosques on top of the mount, known in Arabic as Haram-as-Sharif, while Jews worship at the Western Wall just below. The future of the area was the most difficult and emotional of all the issues that kept Israelis and Palestinians from clinching a deal at Camp David last July.
Israel, which has controlled the Temple Mount since the 1967 Middle East war, is weighing a U.S. proposal to put the area under the management of the U.N. Security Council. Palestinians insist on nothing less than sole sovereignty over the Mount and the rest of East Jerusalem.
Palestinian Authority official Nabil Shaath, an on-again, off-again Palestinian negotiator, said U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright might travel to the region this week to present both sides with an American paper that sums up areas of Israeli-Palestinian agreement and suggests ways to resolve outstanding disputes.
"The American paper should be ready in a few days," Mr. Shaath said in an interview.
Any trip is highly unlikely while Israeli troops and Palestinians engage in running gun battles as they have since Thursday.
Mr. Barak's office said yesterday the government was engaged in "intensive diplomatic contacts" with Washington and that the prime minister had spoken to President Clinton about the latest fighting.
Armed forces Chief of Staff Danny Yatom has also spoken "with a number of top U.S. administration officials," the office said.
When Mrs. Albright does visit, she will probably invite Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Washington for a three-way meeting with President Clinton, Mr. Shaath said.
The outbreak of the latest clashes, just as negotiators were meeting in Washington, prompted accusations on both sides that the violence was orchestrated to improve bargaining positions.
"The Israelis always left management of Haram-as-Sharif to the Palestinians. Now, as a result of the talks, they want to prove that they have a stake here, that they have a claim, and they're doing it in the most violent way," said Mr. Shaath.
Israeli Army Chief Shaul Mofaz, announcing Saturday that Palestinians had agreed to a cease-fire that failed to slow the violence, said the riots did not erupt spontaneously but were coordinated by Mr. Arafat's administration.
Mr. Barak has also suggested the Palestinians were using the violence as a negotiating tactic, insisting he would not be swayed by the turmoil.
The coming weeks are a crucial period in the talks, as Mr. Barak faces an initiative by his political adversaries to force early elections, normally not due until 2003.
Mr. Barak's peace offer to the Palestinians, providing for a Palestinian state on some 90 percent of the West Bank with part of East Jerusalem as its capital, is widely viewed as the most generous any Israeli government can tender.
Mr. Sharon, hard-line leader of the Likud Party, described his visit to the Temple Mount Thursday as an assertion of Israel's sovereignty over the area, though to Palestinians it looked more like an assault on their al-Aqsa mosque.
But he denied yesterday that he was responsible for the violence. "The riots are part of Arafat's policy of applying pressure on Israel and the Americans when he doesn't get what he wants," Mr. Sharon said, referring to the Palestinian leader.
Mr. Sharon, a retired general with a reputation for bulldozing his way through issues, has a barbed history with Palestinians going back to Israel's 1982 Lebanon war against the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he engineered.
The timing of Mr. Sharon's visit the Mount was particularly sensitive, coming as Palestinians were marking the 18th anniversary of the September 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Christian militiamen in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
An Israeli investigation concluded Mr. Sharon was indirectly responsible for the massacre by allowing Christian troops to enter the camps while Israeli soldiers controlled the area.

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