Israel, Palestinians stand firm as U.S. tries to jump-start talks

JERUSALEM, April 6 (JTA) — As attention shifts to Washington for help in breathing life into the peace process, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are remaining firm in the stances that created the current logjam. Before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s departure Sunday for the United States, Israeli officials said he did not intend to budge from decisions to build in all areas of Jerusalem and to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi also traveled to the United States on Sunday, carrying a message from Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat that the Palestinians were willing to resume negotiations with Israel on condition that Israel freeze all construction activity. Palestinian officials added that they expected a U.S. invitation later this week for a higher-level delegation to join Ashrawi. For his part, Netanyahu accused Arafat of giving the green light for violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks after Israel began construction last month of the new Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem. The premier has demanded that Arafat send out a strong message against terror and violence as a precondition for resuming negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, brushing aside the accusation, sent a letter to President Clinton over the weekend urging him to get Israel to stop building on disputed land. Clinton has been working on a plan that American officials hope will help the two sides break the deadlock. One of the central elements under consideration is Netanyahu’s call for moving to accelerated final-status talks, rather than getting bogged down in negotiations on outstanding elements of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The Palestinians have reacted cautiously to the idea, saying that they would consider it as long as Israel fulfills its commitments under the Oslo accords, as the agreements are known, including carrying out further redeployments in the West Bank, opening a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and approving the opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza. Reports before Netanyahu’s departure indicated that Clinton would press the Israeli leader to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to rebuild an atmosphere of trust. U.S. officials said talks last week in Washington between Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were “difficult,” particularly in the discussion of Israel’s construction at Har Homa and in existing Jewish settlements. In Tel Aviv, thousands of Israelis attended a peace rally Saturday night to appeal for a renewal of the peace negotiations. The event took place at the square named after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated there on Nov. 4, 1995, as he left a peace rally. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who spoke at the site for the first time since the assassination, said he felt as if he was speaking “in the name of Yitzhak” as well. Peres called for a continuation of the peace process. “The road is a long one,” he said, “but we must continue on it to reach the peace of truth.” During his trip to the United States, Netanyahu is expected to meet with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements to discuss the Knesset’s decision last week to give preliminary approval to a bill that would make all conversions conducted in Israel subject to confirmation by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. That decision drew sharp criticism from the Reform and Conservative movements, some of whose officials have warned that passage of the bill could drive a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Under a compromise reached last week by the coalition parties, all further legislative action on the bill will now be frozen until “all possible avenues for compromise” with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have been exhausted. Netanyahu will be accompanied at his meetings with American Jewish leaders by Third Way Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky, who is mediating between the religious parties and the non-Orthodox movements.

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