- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Palestinians and Israelis agreed yesterday to send negotiators to Washington to discuss ending the violence and attempt to reach a peace deal before President Clinton leaves office Jan. 20.

But the two sides remain so far apart they likely will not even speak directly to each other but through American diplomats an indication of the deep pessimism about a deal being reached before the end of Mr. Clinton's term.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who met with Mr. Clinton twice Tuesday for discussions that ended near midnight, yesterday morning agreed to hold fresh talks with the Israelis under guidelines the president proposed last month.

"Chairman Arafat told the president that he had accepted the president's parameters" for peace talks, said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.

"At the same time, he expressed some reservations. What that means is that both sides have now accepted the president's ideas with some reservations," Mr. Siewert said. "That represents a step forward."

As Mr. Arafat left his hotel for the airport yesterday morning, he told waiting reporters: "It is important to move the peace process forward."

In Israel yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who faces elections Feb. 6, said Israel's acceptance of fresh peace talks was predicated on Palestinian efforts to reduce violence.

Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles raged overnight yesterday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and violence erupted along the Israel-Lebanon border.

The Israeli army reported that several mortar bombs fired from Lebanon had landed near one of its border posts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area, causing no casualties or damage. Israeli artillery returned fire.

"The Peace Cabinet decided this evening to accept President Clinton's proposal to establish a trilateral mechanism headed by senior officials, which will work to prevent terror and bring about a reduction in violence," said a statement by Mr. Barak's office.

Chief Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher will travel today to Washington to hear details of Mr. Arafat's talks with Mr. Clinton from U.S. mediators Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.

But Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, speaking in Stockholm, said yesterday that it would take a "providential miracle" for Israelis and Palestinians to sign a lasting peace agreement before Mr. Clinton leaves office.

In a separate statement, Mr. Barak's office ruled out any peace talks until satisfactory efforts by the Palestinians are taken to control violence.

"In his talks with President Clinton, Chairman Arafat made certain commitments regarding actions by the Palestinian leadership to reduce the level of violence and to restart counterterrorist cooperation with the Israelis," said the Israeli official. "We are waiting to see a follow-through."

Mr. Siewert said, "Chairman Arafat specifically agreed to intensify efforts to end or stop reduce what they can acts of violence in the area, particularly shootings, to arrest those responsible for the acts of violence, and to resume immediately security cooperation to combat terrorism."

U.S. officials refused to give any specifics about the parameters of the Clinton peace proposals.

However, Mr. Arafat's reservations were spelled out in a letter to Mr. Clinton, published in Al-Ayyaam, a Palestinian daily.

The U.S. proposals could divide the Palestinian state into three cantons cut by Israeli roads, partition Jerusalem into isolated segments, and force Palestinians "to concede the refugees' right of return," Mr. Arafat's letter said.

He also objects to plans to station Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley or allow them the right to cross Palestinian territory in an emergency.

"Although the American proposal is less of a burden on Palestinian sovereignty than Israeli proposals of the past, there is no reason to give Israel three years to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip," the letter said.

Mr. Arafat meets in Cairo today with Arab League foreign ministers to discuss the U.S. peace plan.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the Clinton proposal does not define the size and weaponry of a future "nonmilitarized" Palestinian army.

The U.S. proposals also call for an international force to monitor the separation of the two sides and to oversee Jerusalem's holy places effectively ending the key U.S. role as the only trusted mediating partner.

"The president seems to be proposing on the eve of his departure from office a politically delicate, vaguely defined international military presence precisely the kind of mission that President-elect George W. Bush has decried as generally inappropriate for the United States," said Mr. Satloff.

U.S. officials said they would keep working up to the end of Mr. Clinton's term.

"You can be sure that we're going to work as hard on this as we can until we are either successful or we run out of time," said National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

"There may be a point, based on the president's judgment, that we've gone as far as we can, but we're not at that point yet."

Mr. Clinton said his Middle East proposals will not be valid after he leaves office, Newsweek magazine reported, quoting notes made by an Israeli at a Dec. 23 meeting with the president.

"These are the ideas of the president," said the notes. "If they are not accepted, they are not just off the table, they go with the president as he leaves office."

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