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Israel, Palestinians Ready for Talks

January 21, 2001

TABA, Egypt (AP) _ With Israeli and Palestinian teams set to make a major push for a peace breakthrough at this Egyptian resort, both sides gave off signals Sunday that dampened the already slim hopes for success.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Barak set lines he pledged never to cross, and senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli stance meant the ``failure of these negotiations before they begin.″

Nearly four months of Israeli-Palestinian violence have left both sides embittered, and more trouble broke out Sunday. A 14-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed in the Gaza Strip and three more Palestinians were wounded in the same confrontation with the Israeli army near the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, said Shifa hospital in Gaza.

A small bomb went off Sunday evening in an Arab area of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, close to a Jewish neighborhood. There were no injuries, police said.

Still, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators said they were ready for intensive talks that could last for up to 10 days. For the embattled Barak, the negotiations may be a last chance to revive his flagging re-election campaign.

Barak trails in the polls by about 20 percentage points heading into a Feb. 6 election for prime minister, and many analysts believe a peace agreement is his only real hope of catching his rival, the hawkish Ariel Sharon.

``I promise ... to end the occupation and the rule over another people,″ Barak said on army radio.

Sharon said he did not view the Taba talks as legitimate and said he would only accept a peace accord that is approved by Israel’s parliament, where Barak has just minority support, according to spokeswoman Odelia Lazar-Carmon.

Even within Barak’s camp, there was criticism of the timing of the negotiations. ``I do not think that holding talks two weeks before the elections is proper,″ said veteran lawmaker Uzi Baram of Barak’s Labor Party.

The talks ``are good for Israel, and everything that’s good for Israel must be done,″ countered Israeli negotiator Yossi Sarid, head of the dovish Merets party.

Barak himself said he was holding firm on key issues that led to breakdowns in previous peace talks _ sovereignty over Jerusalem’s most contested religious site and the fate of some 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

``Israel will not accept under any circumstances the right of return of (Palestinian) refugees to Israel,″ Barak said, rejecting a fundamental Palestinian demand. And he added: ``As prime minister I will not sign any document which hands over sovereignty on the Temple Mount to the Palestinians.″

The Temple Mount, which the Palestinians call the Haram as-Sharif, is revered by both Jews and Muslims. Israel claims sovereignty over the shrine inside Jerusalem’s walled Old City. The Muslims have effective day-to-day control, but are seeking full sovereignty.

Also, the Israeli government said it will insist that 80 percent of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip be allowed to remain under Israeli sovereignty. That would cover about 160,000 of the nearly 200,000 settlers currently in those areas.

Erekat said those Israeli positions offered no real prospect for progress, let alone a deal.

Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath was not quite so pessimistic about the talks, but he stressed that the Palestinians would not feel pressured by Israel’s looming election.

``We are going to discuss all issues with the hope of reaching an agreement,″ Shaath said. Still, he added, ``we are not going to make an agreement just because time is running out.″

Shaath said the Palestinians were seeking ``a full framework for the permanent settlement, and this framework has to be really quite clear.″

He cited the refugee issue as the one where the largest gaps remained. Israel, which has just 6 million citizens, says it will never allow millions of Palestinian refugees and their families to return to former homes in its territory. Such a return, Israelis fear, would destroy the country’s Jewish character.

Neither Barak nor Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was expected in Egypt during the initial days of the negotiations.

The talks are expected to focus on recent proposals by former President Clinton, who left office Saturday. The Clinton proposals call for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, 95 percent of the West Bank and Arab areas of east Jerusalem.

Israel and the Palestinians have accepted Clinton’s plan in principle, but both have added significant reservations. In particular, the Palestinians have been reluctant to abandon the demand for the refugees’ right of return, and Israel has chafed at transferring control of the Jerusalem holy site.

The new U.S. president, George W. Bush, is likely to keep his distance from the peace process. Palestinian negotiators have appealed to Bush to get actively involved, and his aide Karl Rove, speaking on Fox TV, said the president was paying ``careful attention″ to the talks and regarded Middle East peace moves as his high priority.

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