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Clinton Administration Scrambles to Salvage Mideast Peace Process.

The Clinton administration has spent the days following last Friday’s killing spree in Hebron trying to ensure that the murder of dozens of Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish settler will not derail the Middle East peace process.

In a series of phone calls and meetings, the administration has sought to bring the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel back to the negotiating table to conclude the talks on Palestinian self-rule that had shown such promise in recent weeks.

After months of staying at arm’s length from the talks, President Clinton moved swiftly last Friday to condemn the attack and announce that he had invited the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who had been meeting in Paris and Egypt, to meet here.

The president also announced that Israel and the Palestinians had accepted his invitation.

The Israelis, for their part, have said they are ready to meet in Washington this week to continue negotiating the implementation of the declaration of principles signed by the two sides last September.

But since Friday, the Palestinians have been debating when and under what circumstances they would send their negotiating team to Washington – a debate that involves the role of the U.S. government in the talks.

At a news conference Monday, a group of top Arab American leaders called for more active U.S. involvement in the peace talks.

“Left to their own devices,” Israelis and Palestinians will “not reach agreement,” said Khalil Jahshan of the National Association of Arab Americans.

The United States “must restore integrity” to the peace process, said James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute.

Zogby warned that if the United States does not work to shore up the Palestinians involved in the peace process, the role of these Palestinians will be jeopardized.

The PLO is losing its “moral authority” in the territories, Zogby said.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has also expressed its support for American efforts to keep the peace process “on track” by inviting the parties to Washington, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice president.

Hoenlein said his group, which is currently in Israel for its annual mission, had been in touch with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other U.S. officials since the incident last Friday, when a Jewish settler killed at least 40 Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Hebron.

Hoenlein said his organization also backed the American attempt to “keep the United Nations from adopting harmful resolutions,” including a proposal to send U.N. observers to the administered territories.

The PLO announced Monday that it would dispatch a representative to Washington to meet with U.S. officials, but as of Monday afternoon the State Department had no word on who the envoy was or when the envoy would arrive here.

Since the killings, the administration has been in touch with Middle East leaders, including PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa and top Israeli officials.

A group of Arab American leaders met Friday with top White House and State Department officials, and were scheduled to meet with Christopher on Tuesday.

Zogby said the administration was showing “greater responsiveness” than he had experienced in the past.

But both he and Jahshan – who spoke of the “genuine sadness” and sympathy expressed by U.S. officials over the killings – said they were taking a wait- and-see approach to ascertain whether the administration’s words translate into actions.

At Monday’s news conference, the Arab American officials discussed various points they want the administration to address.

The issues include the key topic of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Among their recommendations, the Arab Americans said they want the settlers to be disarmed, and Israel to cease settlement activity in the territories.

In the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles signed at the White House last September, settlements were deemed a final-status issue, to be put off for discussion until later.

But the Arab American leaders – like the Palestinian leaders in the Middle East – are calling for the issue to be put on the table immediately.

Jahshan said that this position was “not necessarily reneging on the final status arrangements.” He added that the declaration of principles called for such matters to be discussed “no later” than the third year of the process.

The State Department, for its part, was saying that the agenda for the resumption of talks had already been agreed to by the Israelis and the PLO.

“The agenda is the declaration of principles and how it can e implemented and the full range of issues associated with the declaration,” State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said Monday.

“That has been the agenda and will likely remain the agenda and must remain the agenda for them to move ahead in the process,” he added.

Just a few weeks ago, Israel and the PLO reached an agreement in Cairo that removed most of the security-related obstacles that have delayed carrying out the peace accord, that would grant Palestinians limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

Negotiators have been meeting in Paris to iron out the economic details of the agreement.

Meanwhile, in response to the Hebron massacre, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian delegations to a related set of Middle East peace talks left Washington on Sunday.

The talks, which involve these delegations and Israeli and Palestinian delegations, had been scheduled to conclude Wednesday.

The administration played down the early departure. McCurry said Monday that “all of the parties indicated a continuing commitment to negotiations.”

Ruth Yaron, spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy, said in response to the Arabs’ departure: “We have expressed, through the U.S. administration, our disappointment that our Arab interlocutors decided to end this round of peace talks earlier than scheduled.

“We feel that at this specific moment it would have been important to continue the peace talks, since this would have been a comforting message for our respective people,” she added.

On Sunday, McCurry, in a statement, called the Israeli Cabinet’s actions to deal with the Hebron massacre – including the creation of a board of inquiry to look into the matter – “an important step toward assuring the security of Palestinians and in preventing the recurrence of such horrific acts of violence in the future.”

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