- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

President Clinton yesterday called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to "dramatically reduce the level of violence" in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel where more than 130 people have died in nearly a month of street clashes.

Mr. Clinton's comments came as he detailed his renewed invitation to Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to return to Washington for separate talks aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process.

"I think the violence can be dramatically reduced," Mr. Clinton told reporters at the Oval Office yesterday.

"I think that there are probably some people within the Palestinian territories and probably some people within Israel that are not within total control of Chairman Arafat or even the Israeli government.

"But I do think Chairman Arafat can dramatically reduce the level of violence."

Fighting resumed yesterday between two neighborhoods of Jerusalem despite a meeting of Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs held to reduce violence, a police official said.

Gunmen in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala fired at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, a 15-minute drive from central Jerusalem. Israeli troops returned machine-gun fire and tanks fired two shells at targets in Beit Jala. No casualties were reported.

The shooting came as Palestinian Maj. Gen. Abdel-Razek Majaydeh held talks with Israeli Maj. Gen. Yom-Tov Samia, chief of Israel's southern command, aimed at lowering the level of violence the first such talks in two weeks according to an Israeli official.

Mr. Barak was still trying to forge an alliance with hard-line Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to stave off a collapse of his government Monday when Parliament returns.

And Palestinian Authority officials were working with leaders of Hamas and possibly Islamic Jihad both listed as terrorist groups by the U.S. State Department in order to increase pressure on Israel to hand over the Old City of Jerusalem.

Hamas and Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction are among a dozen Palestinian groups that have been directing the daily street protests, such as setting the times and places for street marches, said Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader.

Eighty-five militants have been released from jails in the West Bank and Gaza since the new uprising, or intifada, broke out Sept. 28 after a visit by Mr. Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Yesterday, despite reports they were collaborating with Mr. Arafat in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas leaders warned him not to travel once more to Washington for yet another meeting with Mr. Clinton.

"We warn the president of the Palestinian Authority against going to this meeting, which our people consider as a new conspiracy aimed at aborting the Intifada of al-Aqsa [mosque]," Hamas said in statement faxed to Reuters news agency in Beirut.

Mr. Barak, meanwhile, sought support from Mr. Sharon but refused to give him veto over future peace talks and security issues. Both men are battle-tested former generals.

A recent poll showed that 60 percent of Israelis backed Mr. Barak's plan to form a national emergency government, which, if it included Mr. Sharon, would go back on concessions to the Palestinians at July's failed Camp David summit.

White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said yesterday that Mr. Clinton on Tuesday telephoned Mr. Barak as well as Mr. Arafat to discuss holding separate meetings at the White House in the coming days.

"In the context of reducing the violence, we hope that both sides will decide to start moving back toward the negotiating process. Meetings are one option to do that," Mr. Crowley said.

The two leaders have said they would not like to meet each other but would still discuss proposals for restoring the peace process with Mr. Clinton.

The process of separate meetings with Mr. Clinton at a summit in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, two weeks ago produced verbal promises by both sides to stop the violence and disengage from points of confrontation.

Mr. Clinton yesterday dismissed reports that Mr. Arafat may no longer be able to control the armed Tanzim militia and the mobs of rock throwers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"I don't think that we should ask ourselves whether he has 100 percent control, because the truth is none of us know the answer to that and nobody has 100 percent control of any situation.

"The real and fundamental question is, can the level of violence be substantially reduced by a sustained effort? If the parties agree to do what they agreed at Sharm [el Sheik], the answer to that is a resounding yes," he said.

A senior member of Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization who is also accused by Israel of heading the armed Tanzim militia, said yesterday in Paris that Mr. Arafat remains the central figure in the Palestinian territories and is in control.

"President Yasser Arafat is the leader of the nation. He takes the political decisions, and he is with us," Marwan Bargouthi, told Le Monde.

"Without his support, the intifada could not continue."

Mr. Crowley said no timetable has been set for any visits to Washington by the Middle East leaders.

Mr. Clinton said "events in the next several days will determine" if fresh peace talks can be started.

"You can't maintain this status quo. We either have to shut the violence down and get back to the peace process, or there's going to be at least a level of anxiety, mistrust and a worsening of relations which I don't think would be good for anybody," he said.

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