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Clinton: Speed Up Mideast Talks

January 20, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ With Mideast peacemaking in slow-motion, President Clinton says he is taking on the task of nudging Syria and Israel along, and that neither side is giving up despite the suspension of talks this week.

``Neither side has decided to back away from the peace talks, call an end, call a freeze to them, that’s not what’s going on,″ Clinton said Wednesday.

``They are having a genuine dispute,″ about which issues to tackle first, ``that I’m trying to work through for both of them,″ Clinton said after a White House speech promoting a new health care proposal.

The president cast the dispute as fairly minor.

``We’re in a little patch here where I’ve just got a little extra work to do, and I’m going to work at it,″ he said.

In Damascus, though, Syria’s state-run newspapers called on Washington to push Israel harder to spell out its intentions on returning the Golan Heights.

The administration must become ``a more active definer and interpreter of the broad terms that the Israelis have already accepted in previous rounds of talks,″ the English-language Syria Times said.

And Al-Baath, the newspaper of Syria’s ruling Baath party, called the border issue a ``substantial difference ... that cannot be bypassed.″

``The American co-sponsor should not be evenhanded on a basic issue on which the establishment of peace or the continuation of the state of war heavily depends,″ it said in an editorial.

Today, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had a scheduled White House meeting with Clinton as the administration acknowledged Israel and the Palestinians may miss a mid-February deadline for concluding the outline of a final settlement of their long dispute.

The Palestinian leader met first with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In a move apparently timed to the visit, more than 300 rabbis urged Israel to share sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

In a statement issued by The Jewish Peace Lobby, a private group that for a decade his urged Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, the rabbis said many Israelis would favor a city that was smaller but more thoroughly Jewish in population.

``The question is whether the pursuit of both justice and peace requires that, in some form, Jerusalem should be shared with the Palestinian people,″ the rabbis said. ``We believe that it does.″

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Wednesday if Israel and the Palestinians delayed there would be no framework agreement by Feb. 13 or a formal settlement by the fall, as planned.

``It’s our view that the parties have some tough decisions to make,″ he said.

These include whether the Palestinians are to have a state, whether Jerusalem is to be shared by Israel with Arafat and how much more land Israel will turn over.

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush said the United States should not impose a Mideast settlement.

``There can be no lasting peace if the Israelis, for whatever reason, feel like they must accept an agreement because it makes us happy,″ the Texas governor said.

So far, most of the Gaza Strip and 40 percent of the West Bank have been assigned to the Palestinians. Arafat is claiming the rest of the West Bank and part of Israel’s capital, as well.

``We believe it’s very important to talk to Chairman Arafat about his concerns and his assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian track and the importance of making progress on that track,″ Rubin said.

``Mid-February is rapidly approaching, and it is going to be a formidable challenge to try to solve the problems that need to be solved,″ Rubin said.

But, he added, ``we have not given up hope.″

Rubin said Albright may go to the Middle East next month, either after winding up talks in Moscow on Feb. 1 or on a separate trip. He also left open the possibility of her going to Damascus for talks with Syrian officials.

In the meantime, Israel and Syria are due to send experts here later in the month to work on a U.S.-drafted document that could be the basis for a treaty.

But the main issues remain unresolved after talks in Washington last month and in Shepherdstown, W.Va., earlier this month.

The issues are how much land Israel will relinquish, the terms of peace, new security arrangements along the border with Syria and water resources.

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