- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

A divided Palestinian leadership yesterday signaled it would not meet a tentative deadline of today to respond to President Clinton's proposed outline of a comprehensive peace deal with Israel.
As senior aides to Yasser Arafat expressed deep unhappiness with the suggested accord, the Palestinian leader met late into yesterday evening with his negotiating team.
Caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak already has said Israel would be obliged to accept the proposal if Mr. Arafat went along. Although both sides have talked of a Wednesday deadline, the State Department yesterday said U.S. negotiators were expecting the replies "later this week."
"Once we hear from them, then we'll have a better sense of how we'll move forward and what the next steps might be," said department spokesman Philip T. Reeker.
Palestinian sources last night indicated Mr. Arafat may try to buy time while seeking more details on the American deal. The Palestinian executive council was reportedly drafting a noncommittal letter to U.S. negotiators expressing a number of reservations with the current proposal.
Mr. Clinton's proposal emerged after five days of U.S.-mediated talks that concluded Saturday.
Designed to break the violent stalemate following the failed Camp David summit this summer, the compromise involves Israel largely renouncing its claims to holy sites in east Jerusalem in exchange for the renunciation by millions of Palestinians of a right to return to ancestral homelands inside Israel.
The U.S. plan also calls for a clear declaration by the Palestinians that the half-century conflict with Israel is over with the signing of the peace deal.
"The Palestinian leadership found after studying these ideas they were not very different from those presented at Camp David," a Palestinian official told reporters after Mr. Arafat and senior associates concluded their executive session yesterday.
The political calendar brings new pressure to the latest talks.
Mr. Clinton, who has immersed himself in the intractable problems at the root of the conflict, leaves office Jan. 20, and Mr. Barak faces Likud party head Ariel Sharon in a Feb. 6 election for prime minister that Mr. Barak hopes to transform into a referendum on a final peace accord.
Mr. Arafat faces his own pressures, as was made clear by several statements to the press by top lieutenants as Palestinian leaders debated the peace deal yesterday.
Marwan Barghouthi, one of the most influential of Mr. Arafat's associates in the dominant Fatah faction, told the Reuters news agency that most Palestinians would "strongly confront" any peace deal based on the American proposal.
Mr. Barghouthi, considered a driving force behind the street violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that has left more than 350 dead, challenged yesterday: "Show me one Palestinian who would dare accept these American ideas or even think of accepting them."
A new poll released by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 52 percent of those surveyed in Jerusalem and on the West Bank opposed even the idea of negotiating with Israel. Nearly four in five rejected the idea that Palestinian refugees should forfeit their right to return to Israel.
Mr. Barak, who plans to meet with his security Cabinet today to discuss the peace accords, also faced stern domestic opposition to the proposed deal.
Mr. Sharon already has said he will campaign against the prime minister's peace initiative, and the leaked details about surrendering much of Israel's claim to the Holy Mount site brought fresh protests this week.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, in an interview with Israel Radio, accused Mr. Barak of "living with stupid fantasies" in agreeing to cede sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
The mayor, a member of Mr. Sharon's Likud party, announced that he will relocate his office to the Western Wall, the sacred Jewish site incorporated into the Temple Mount complex, in protest.
Teddy Kollek, Mr. Olmert's popular predecessor and a longtime proponent of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, also balked at the American proposals for Jerusalem.
"The Temple Mount is the only central Jewish point it's a symbol, and symbols are always important," Mr. Kollek said. "At the moment, you certainly cannot persuade the Jews to give up the Temple Mount."
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami said yesterday the Barak government was prepared to accept an international force to police the agreement, a longtime Palestinian demand that has been opposed in the past by Israel.
Mr. Barak's shaky political fortunes could be strengthened by a deal.
A poll released yesterday in Israel gave Mr. Sharon a 14 percentage point lead over Mr. Barak among voters, 38 percent to 24 percent. But should the Barak government reach a final peace deal, Mr. Sharon's lead shrinks to just four points 37 percent to 33 percent.

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