- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

A Mideast summit planned for Egypt today was called off after the Palestinians strongly objected to a peace blueprint by President Clinton, dealing a serious setback to the U.S. leader's effort achieve an agreement before he leaves office.
Egypt's Information Ministry, in an announcement early today, said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would not travel to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The failure to convene a summit dealt a blow to hopes that a summit could quickly quell an upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Even as Egypt announced there would be no summit, however, Israel accepted the U.S. proposals for an accord with the Palestinians as a basis for new peace talks.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Isaac Herzog said a final decision on the Egypt meeting would be made later today. "It's possible that there will be no summit," he said. Mr. Barak's office said he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would speak by telephone and decide.
On-and-off summits are a time-honored ploy in Middle East peace diplomacy. What makes this particular cancellation a serious setback, however, is the limited time left to Mr. Clinton before he leaves office Jan. 20.
Hopes for success dwindled quickly through the day yesterday as senior aides to Mr. Arafat strongly criticized elements of the plan offered by Mr. Clinton last week in Washington, calling them worse than the deal rejected by Mr. Arafat at the failed Camp David summit in July.
Comments by Palestinian officials, made to reporters in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, after a closed strategy session chaired by Mr. Arafat, were so negative that the Palestinian National Authority later was forced to "categorically deny" press reports that the U.S. plan had been officially rejected.
Mr. Barak, who faces an uphill fight in Israeli elections Feb. 6, has said his government can accept the American proposals if Mr. Arafat does. Mr. Barak's security Cabinet held its own lengthy session yesterday reviewing the deal.
But Mr. Barak also noted that the Palestinian response had been so negative that the planned summit today was in doubt.
Mr. Clinton himself sounded a hopeful note yesterday, saying the two sides "are closer than they have ever been before."
"The whole question now is whether they agree to continue the negotiations on the basis of these ideas," Mr. Clinton said. "We've got to bring this to a conclusion if we're going to continue."
Administration officials said they were reviewing a letter from the Palestinian Authority, but maintained it was not a rejection of the American proposals. Mr. Clinton's advisers were hoping for a final answer to a U.S.-drafted outline for a peace deal.
The most optimistic scenario, outlined by senior administration officials, would be for Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to embrace enough of the American outline to pave the way for a new summit in Washington, possibly as soon as this weekend.
The U.S. plan is a set of core principles designed to produce a comprehensive peace deal in the coming months. The most difficult trade-off involves new Israeli concessions on contested holy sites in Jerusalem in exchange for sharp restrictions on the right of some 4 million Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes inside Israel.
The Palestinian letter, delivered to U.S. diplomats yesterday, revealed new details of the deal.
According to the letter, Mr. Clinton's proposal would give Israel the right to lease parcels of land on the West Bank and northern end of the Gaza Strip for up to 20 years. Israeli troops would also patrol the strategic Jordan Valley for three to six years, before giving way to an international peacekeeping force.
Israel would also control a 6- to 10-mile-wide corridor linking Jerusalem with the Dead Sea, cutting directly through the proposed new Palestinian state, according to the Palestinian letter.
Mr. Barak's apparent readiness to cede sovereignty over most of the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem to the new Palestinian state has created sharp divisions within Israel.
Likud party leader Ariel Sharon has said he would not honor a deal worked out by Mr. Barak if he is elected prime minister. Mr. Sharon leads in the polls and a new survey released yesterday by the Jerusalem Post found that Israelis opposed the outlines of the American proposal, 52 percent to 38 percent.
While not subject to democratic pressures, Mr. Arafat clearly is facing internal divisions as well.
"The offer we have is not an opportunity but a trap," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said before Mr. Arafat and other senior Palestinian leaders met last night. "The Palestinians will pay an expensive price for it in the future."
White House officials said Mr. Clinton continued to work the phones yesterday with regional leaders, seeking to shore up support for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.
The Sharm el Sheik summit would have been the first face-to-face meeting between Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat since the explosion of street violence began at the end of September, claiming more than 350 Israeli and Palestinian lives.
For the Palestinians, the main sticking point appeared to be Mr. Clinton's proposal that they dramatically scale back their long-standing demand that millions of Palestinian refugees be able to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.
"The American ideas did not comply with the Palestinian principles and the Palestinian principles are clear and obvious," said Dr. Samir Gusha, a member of Palestinian decision-making body that met last night.
Arab countries were also critical of the American proposal.
"The United States is, unfortunately, still far away from understanding the realities of the Middle East conflict," al-Ba'ath, the newspaper of Syria's ruling party, said in criticism of the refugee plan.
Syria hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The refugees date to the 1948 Mideast War that broke out with Israel's independence. Nearly 4 million refugees and their descendants live in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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