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Israel, Palestinians Have No Illusions Going into Difficult Final Status Talks

Six years after signing the first Oslo accord at the White House, Israel and the Palestinians have launched final status negotiations aimed at ending their decades-long conflict.

But alongside hopeful declarations by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian Authority official Abu Mazen at a festive ceremony at the Erez Crossing to the Gaza Strip on Monday, both sides made clear they are aware of the difficulties that lie ahead.

“We are now entering the final phase to reach a final arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian which will hopefully end years of suffering and conflict,” Levy said. “But no one is under any illusion.

“It is no secret each side is coming to the table with its own principles and positions,” Levy said, “in which differences will at times seem insurmountable.”

Abu Mazen, who is Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s deputy, declared that Israel and the Palestinians have reached the moment of truth and that the Palestinians look with “hope and optimism” toward a “historic reconciliation between the two sides.”

He stressed that the process must be based on the principle of land for peace and the establishment “of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.” Abu Mazen said the Palestinians would uphold their commitment to fight terrorism.

“We have wasted much time in the peace process,” he said. “For that reason we have decided to launch final status talks in an intensive fashion. If the Sharm el-Sheik agreement is implemented, it will restore Palestinian faith in the peace process.”

In the agreement signed at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik earlier this month, Israel and the Palestinians set an ambitious one-year deadline to conclude a final status accord by September 13, 2000 — and to resolve the thorniest issues that the sides have until now put off dealing with in interim agreements

These include borders, refugees, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, water, security arrangements and the Palestinian entity.

Ahead of Monday’s ceremony, each side talked tough about their red lines.

Addressing a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers Sunday in Cairo, Arafat called on all refugees to return, declaring that “Palestine is the homeland of all Palestinians.”

The remarks were met with displeasure in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office issued a statement that all disputed issues “will be resolved only in negotiations and not through provocative unilateral steps or declarations.”

The statement also reiterated that Israel’s position going into the final status negotiations is clear: no return to the pre- 1967 borders, Jerusalem will remain the united capital of Israel, large blocs of Jewish settlements will be preserved, and there will be no foreign army west of the Jordan River.

Earlier Monday, Israel formally transferred to Palestinian civilian control 7 percent of West Bank land, as stipulated in the Sharm el-Sheik agreement. This was the first of three further withdrawals called for in the accord.

The ceremony at Erez in fact marked a relaunch of the final status talks, first declared in a one-time ceremony on the eve of the May 1996 election in Israel in which Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister.

Even before Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams get to work, observers suggested that the sides have set an impossible timetable to resolve the contentious issues facing them.

U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who attended the Erez ceremony, told reporters the five-month timetable for reaching a framework for the permanent- status talks was “realistic,” but he stressed that all sides were aware difficult issues lay ahead.

Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres, an architect of the original Oslo accords, described the coming months as a “test of the creative and innovative skills” of the two sides to overcome the inevitable obstacles. Speaking on Israel Television’s Channel 1, Peres added, “For me, this is indeed a festive moment.”

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