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Palestinians rebuff Netanyahu on expediting final-status talks

JERUSALEM, March 20 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed that Israel and the Palestinians move to complete their final-status talks within six months. Netanyahu floated the idea earlier this week with Jordan’s King Hussein, who visited Israel Sunday, and with American officials. However, senior Palestinian officials rejected the idea outright, calling it a public relations ploy, and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat refused to meet with the premier to discuss the matter. Netanyahu’s proposal comes as Israeli-Palestinian relations have reached their worst crisis since the two sides signed a framework for peace in 1993. Palestinian anger continues to rage over Israel’s decision to commence construction of a new Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in eastern Jerusalem. At Rachel’s Tomb, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers used tear gas Thursday to disperse Palestinian demonstrators who hurled stones at the troops. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai warned the Palestinians against escalating the violence and said that Friday prayers in mosques should not be exploited to increase tensions. “I hope that nobody will use violence to try to change the situation in the area,” he said. In another development that added to the tension surrounding Har Homa, five Jewish families moved into an empty house Wednesday night in the Silwan neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. The families, who refer to the area as the City of David, said they had purchased the property legally from its Arab owners, who now live in the United States. According to representatives of the families, there are currently 10 Jewish-owned houses in Silwan. About 100 Jews, including 30 yeshiva students, live in the primarily Arab area outside the walls of the Old City. The Prime Minister’s Office said it had no connection to the move, which it said came at a sensitive time. Netanyahu’s proposal to move straight to final-status talks, ahead of implementing other interim steps, is not new — he made a similar offer shortly after his election last May. But in renewing the offer this week, Netanyahu appeared to be seeking to break the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli officials said that under the proposal, the accelerated final status talks would be concluded by November, when Israel is scheduled to carry out the second of three redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank that were called for in the Hebron accord. However, if accelerating the final-status talks proves to be unworkable, Netanyahu said negotiators could revert back to the original step-by- step process. Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan was believed to have raised the idea with Arafat when the two met in Gaza earlier this week. Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh also discussed the proposal with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. However, the Palestinians were not receptive. Erekat accused Netanyahu of “trying to destroy the foundations of the peace process and the autonomy agreements, in order to get out of honoring his commitments, including the next two phases of the Israeli military redeployment in the West Bank.” Final-status talks began ceremonially in May under the previous Labor government. They were scheduled to resume Monday, but the Palestinians balked in the wake of the Har Homa situation. Some of the thorniest issues remain to be resolved in the final-status talks, including Jerusalem, borders, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. Members of Netanyahu’s coalition and the opposition expressed support for the proposal to move up the talks. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said the idea could be a “good one” but said he wanted to study it first. Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Israeli- Palestinian accords, also welcomed the plan. But other opposition figures remained skeptical. Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said that unless the Netanyahu government altered its policies significantly, it could set as many target dates for accords as it wanted, but it would never reach an agreement with the Palestinians.