JERUSALEM, Sept. 2 (JTA) — It sounds like a tall order, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak seriously intends to have the essential elements of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute wrapped up by February. After the practicalities of implementing the Wye accord are squared away, Israel and the Palestinians will be ready to embark on the final-status negotiations. The details of how and when to implement Wye, however, remained difficult this week. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright left Egypt for Jerusalem on Thursday after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to reach an agreement. As Albright continues her five-day Middle East visit aimed at boosting peace in the region, Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to disagree over the release of Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinian Authority called for the release of some 400 Palestinians held in Israeli jails — after originally demanding 650 — while Israel offered freedom for some 350 detainees. If they can get this hurdle behind them, the two sides will turn next to the final-status talks, which will tackle some of the thorniest problems confronting them, including the status of Jerusalem, final borders, Palestinian sovereignty and the return of Palestinian refugees. A formal opening ceremony for the talks was held two years ago, but no progress has been made since then, as the two sides became bogged down in disputes regarding the interim accords. By February, according to Barak’s timetable, Israel and the Palestinian Authority will reach a framework agreement that will lay down the guidelines for a solution of all the key problems between them, except that of the status and future of Jerusalem. Subsequent intensive negotiations will result in a full-fledged accord by the year’s end. The February document, as Barak envisages it, will be no less historic than the original 1993 Oslo accord, in which Israel and the PLO exchanged recognition and embarked on the interim peace process. The February document will presumably include: * acceptance by Israel of Palestinian independence; * acceptance by the Palestinian Authority that the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees does not pertain to territory within the State of Israel; * an international mechanism to resolve the refugee issue; * agreement regarding the presence of Jewish settlements in territory beyond Israel’s 1967 borders; The precise borders of the new Palestinian state will be the subject of the subsequent negotiations, but their outline will emerge in broad brush strokes from the February document. Barak is operating under the premise that leaving issues unresolved beyond the timetable he envisages will only invite future strife. Conceivably, the treaty envisaged for the end of next year could be concluded and signed with only the issue of Jerusalem left unresolved.
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