- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

JERUSALEM The latest Middle East peace proposals reflect an odd mixture of creativity and desperation as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders pack for U.S. visits this week with time running short for both of them.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a hard-nosed secular politician, had perhaps the most original proposal, declaring last week his readiness to accept suggestions for "divine rule" over the most precious piece of real estate in his city, the Temple Mount.

Such an approach, he said, could neutralize the conflicting claims of Jews and Muslims to the holy site, which has become the most difficult issue in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

American intermediaries, meanwhile, have proposed dividing the Mount into four sections, with each coming under either Israeli, Palestinian or mixed sovereignty. One of the four sections would be the subterranean area beneath the Mount.

Behind the proposals lies a mounting sense of urgency driven by deadlines facing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who pledged to declare a Palestinian state on Sept. 13 and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who faces likely early elections when parliament resumes sitting this fall.

Hopes are fading that the two leaders will meet, perhaps in the company of President Clinton, while both are in New York this week for a Millennium Summit at the United Nations.

Spokesmen for Mr. Barak, who left for the United States last night, said there was little chance of a breakthrough, though he would be talking in New York to Mr. Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and European and Arab leaders.

During his meetings, Mr. Barak will be watching to see if the Palestinians are open to ideas raised at the failed Camp David peace summit in July or in talks since then, Mr. Barak's office said in a statement.

But, it said: "The prime minister says that up until now he has not seen any signs of flexibility or openness on the Palestinian side which would indicate that the negotiations will be renewed."

Mr. Arafat, for his part, told Arab foreign ministers in Cairo yesterday that he could not accept any peace plan with Israel that did not provide for an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"We are not going to accept a settlement at any cost," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying at a two-day Arab League meeting. "We will not accept gambling or adventure, nor will we give up."

With an agreement by Sept. 13 increasingly unlikely, Palestinian officials are hinting that the deadline might be pushed back to Nov. 15. But that would come after the U.S. presidential elections, making it unlikely that Mr. Clinton would continue to be involved.

Analysts see little hope for a peace agreement without American involvement and note that the new president would need several months in office before he could devote himself to the issue.

Israeli observers believe that even if Mr. Arafat extends his deadline once or twice, he will not allow it to go past Dec. 31. If there is no agreement when that happens, Israel is expected to respond in ways that will be painful to the Palestinians.

It could stop Palestinians from entering Israel to work, which would be devastating for their economy. It also could stop Palestinians from passing through Israeli territory between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The distance between such steps and physical confrontation is short.

Mr. Barak has his own reasons to hope for an early settlement. With his governing coalition in tatters and parliament expected to vote for new elections when it returns at the end of October, the prime minister needs something to show the public before going into a campaign.

"It is very critical, it is make or break," said Ron Pundak, who helped negotiate the 1993 Oslo accords. Mr. Pundak told Reuters that Mr. Barak's timetable "is serious and he … needs to know by the end of the month if there is a deal… .

"We are at the most crucial six weeks of negotiations," Mr. Pundak added. "If we don't have a deal with Clinton, this could influence Israeli politics, Barak could fall… . I'm afraid that we might enter into another round of violence."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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