Israel, Palestinians Differ on Progress in Negotiations

Hoping to make headway in their negotiations on the Israeli redeployment in Hebron, Israel and the Palestinians this week agreed to an American proposal to delay by at least a day resuming formal talks to give more time for informal contacts.

The postponement was announced as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met Sunday with opposition leader Shimon Peres in an attempt to bolster the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

The formal negotiations were scheduled to open Monday at the Egyptian resort of Taba, moving later in the week to Eilat.

But U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who has been mediating the talks, said Sunday that informal discussions between working groups on various issues related to Hebron appeared to be making progress, and suggested allowing them to continue.

“It would be worthwhile not to stop the momentum” of the informal discussions, the head of the Israeli negotiating team, former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, told Israel Radio.

“I can’t say everything is resolved, but there is a closening of positions,” Shomron added.

Sources in Jerusalem said Sunday that they believed that an agreement on the Hebron redeployment, which was originally scheduled to have been carried out in March, would be reached by the end of the month.

But this optimism was not shared by the Palestinians, who said that the first round of talks last week failed to resolve any of the disputed issues.

After his meeting with Peres in the West Bank town of Nablus, Arafat called on the people of Israel to help advance the peace process.

“I am addressing the whole Israeli people, to be faithful to what we have agreed upon and what has been signed,” he said.

Labor leader Peres urged the two sides not to lose hope.

“In spite of the difficulties and the disappointments, peace is not dead,” he said. “We shall overcome this crisis and go ahead.”

Palestinian negotiators have accused Israel of attempting to reopen already- signed agreements relating to the Hebron redeployment. They say they will accept minor adjustments to the accord, but have rejected Israeli security demands as attempts to renegotiate the agreements.

These demands include arming Palestinian police in Hebron only with pistols; retaining the right of hot pursuit of suspected terrorists into Palestinian- ruled areas; and ensuring that no Palestinian security forces are stationed on the hilltops overlooking the Jewish enclave of Hebron, which has about 450 settlers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that these measures are necessary, especially in light of last month’s outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that killed 76 people from both sides.

In what was billed as a confidence-building measure, Israel eased the full closure it imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of the violence.

Despite an earlier decision by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai to allow 35,000 Palestinians to return to their jobs in Israel on Sunday, only about 3,300 workers actually entered Israel that day.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu convened the Inner Cabinet for consultations on what is feared might provide another spark for the Israeli-Palestinian tinderbox: the planned opening of a mosque in a vast underground chamber under the Temple Mount complex.

The site, known as Solomon’s Stables, was used last winter, with consent from the previous Israeli government, for Ramadan prayers.

The Wakf, which administers Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount, has been overseeing intensive renovations in the past month to open a permanent mosque at the site.

The mosque’s inauguration was expected sometime this week.

Israeli security officials warned last week that the opening of the mosque could spark a violent reaction from right-wing Jewish groups.

Legal officials advised the Inner Cabinet that the opening of the mosque did not violate any laws and could not be prevented, Israel Radio reported Sunday.

Foreign Minister David Levy warned Sunday against turning every issue, including the mosque, into a confrontation between Jews and the Islamic world.

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