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Mideast Talks To Resume on Schedule

June 11, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli and Palestinian negotiators left Sunday for peace treaty talks in Washington, despite the uncertainty cast over the Middle East by Syrian President Hafez Assad’s death.

The Palestinians for the first time can expect Israel’s undivided attention, since a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks in the near future is very unlikely. Assad’s successor, apparently his son Bashar, will need time to consolidate his rule.

The expected delay in the Israeli-Syrian talks is ``beneficial for the Palestinians since they have an opportunity to finish (a treaty with Israel) before the Syrians,″ said Palestinian commentator Ghassan Khatib.

When talks on both tracks were proceeding simultaneously last winter, the Palestinians were worried that Israel would play one Arab partner against the other to extract concessions on both.

Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Sunday that Assad’s death could give Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat more freedom in the negotiations. In the past, Assad has been sharply critical of Arafat for negotiating a separate peace with Israel. Several Palestinian groups opposed to peace with Israel are based in Syria.

Beilin suggested that Assad’s successor might not have the same clout in the Arab world as the late Syrian president. ``I don’t exclude the possibility that in the future the Palestinians will not see the Syrians as those who legitimize their acts and they may feel free to negotiate the permanent solution with us,″ Beilin said.

However, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the transition period in Syria would have little effect on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The main issue, he said, was Israel’s refusal to implement U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which call for an Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Palestinians hope to establish a state in these areas _ the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

``We hope in our talks in Washington, maximum efforts will be extended in order to achieve decisions by Israel,″ Erekat said.

Erekat and other negotiators left the region on Sunday, and talks were scheduled to resume Monday at an undisclosed location in or near Washington. President Clinton’s Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, was to participate in the talks.

On Wednesday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was to meet with Clinton at the White House. Arafat aides say no change has been made on that meeting due to Assad’s death.

Palestinian-Syrian ties have been strained for many years, although Arafat planned to attend Assad’s funeral Tuesday.

Erekat suggested that the Palestinians regarded the new regime as presenting an opportunity for the Syrians and the Palestinians to coordinate negotiations with Israel, instead of allowing the Israelis to play one side off the other.

``There is much at this stage to coordinate ... to improve the situation on both sides,″ Erekat told Associated Press Television News.

The United States was to be represented by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. No Israeli leader would countenance even asking to attend a funeral in an enemy state, although some Arab residents of the disputed Golan Heights said they hoped to send a delegation.

Israel and the Palestinians have made little progress in their negotiations. A treaty framework, which would outline a solution for the four main problems _ borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements _ still appears out of reach. A final peace treaty is due Sept. 13.

Erekat said Sunday that the Palestinians have reached an understanding with Israel that once a framework treaty is signed, 1,650 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, including about 1,000 Islamic militants, would be freed.

Beilin said the fate of the prisoners is still being negotiated, but that once the conflict is over, ``the issue of the prisoners will have to be dealt with differently.″

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak cautioned over the weekend that a complete agreement with the Palestinians may not be possible by September.

``If we don’t reach a (final peace deal), we will make a deal that is almost complete,″ Barak told Israel radio. He added that other issues would be resolved within an agreed-upon timeframe with the Palestinians.

Arafat declared a three-day mourning period in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Assad’s death was met with mixed emotions by the Palestinians.

Syrian troops fought against the PLO in Lebanon’s civil war in an attempt to destroy Arafat. Assad never agreed with Arafat’s negotiating style with Israel.

A low point came last year when Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass called Arafat a ``son of 60,000 whores.″

``Throughout the years he has taken the hard line against us,″ said Hiyam Nassereldin, a 45-year-old math teacher from Hebron. ``His defense minister, when he attacked our president, he was not speaking for himself but for Assad.″

Salman Qassem, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem, said Assad deserved respect for insisting on regaining all the land Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war. ``That was his good point and I hope to God, Bashar will follow his father,″ Qassem said.

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