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Pact Hinges on 30 Jailed Men

September 2, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A disagreement over 30 men jailed for the killing of Israelis stands between weeks of grueling negotiations and a land for security agreement that forecasts an end to decades of hostilities within a year.

Future negotiations were uncertain Thursday morning, hours before U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives in Egypt to attend a ceremony intended to re-launch the U.S.-brokered Wye Memorandum.

Each side said it was up to the other to convene a final, crucial negotiating session to resolve the difference over imprisoned Palestinians: Israel is ready to release 370, the Palestinians want 400.

The 30 in the middle are apparently Palestinians involved in the killing of Israelis _ a type of prisoner Israel will not release. The uncertainty cast doubt on whether the ceremony would take place.

``If nothing has changed, there is no reason to make a special ceremony,″ said David Ziso, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Ziso said Israel was waiting for a call from the Palestinians saying they agreed to Israel’s terms.

Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, said it was up to Israel to pick up the phone.

``They are escalating the situation at the final moment for no reason,″ Erekat said. ``We reject this way of dealing with us.″

Erekat said there was agreement on every other issue, including that were especially vexing: a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from at least 13 percent of the West Bank and a deadline for a final status agreement.

The new deadline for a permanent Palestinian-Israeli to wrap up a final peace deal would be a year after the re-launch of Wye _ if all goes well this week, that would mean September, 2000.

Palestinians agreed to the Israeli deadline on the final Wye-mandated withdrawal: Jan. 20. Previously, the Palestinians had insisted on Dec. 31.

Tempers were frayed after intensive, all-night talks. Shouting could occasionally be heard throughout the corridors outside the conference room. Repeated calls were made to Egyptian leaders, who also have acted as brokers in attempting to resolve the differences.

Barak had threatened to implement ``Wye, as it is written″ if the negotiators failed to meet his conditions by the time his Cabinet met at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT).

Although Barak has never elaborated on what the phrase ``as it is written″ means, it is presumed that he intends to apply a strictly Israeli interpretation to the agreement: an extended withdrawal and the release of prisoners purely of Israel’s choosing. Such conditions would infuriate the Palestinians.

The Cabinet meeting ended just before midnight (2100 GMT), and Ziso said Israel was ``still waiting for answers″ from the Palestinians on Israel’s final offer on the prisoners. He did not say what the offer was, but indicated that Barak’s threat was not yet in force.

``Sept. 1 is when the timetable for Wye starts ticking,″ Ziso told The Associated Press. ``In four weeks, there is a withdrawal.″

It was at least the third time this week that Barak’s office had postponed the deadline for the ``as it is written″ ultimatum.

The Palestinian leadership is under heavy pressure to show gains on the prisoner issue _ families of prisoners have taken to the streets in recent days to demonstrate in favor of the release of loved ones. But the Israelis also face public pressures, including sympathy for families of victims.

A signature on a revised Wye accord would mark the first achievement for Barak, who has promised to get negotiations with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon back on track. An agreement would also allow Albright to focus on getting Israeli-Syrian talks resumed during her four-day visit to the Middle East.

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