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Barak is Optimistic About Talks, but Palestinians Are Not So Sure

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is optimistic that progress can be achieved in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Israel and the Palestinians face a “window of opportunity,” Barak was quoted as telling his Cabinet on Sunday.

His comments came after he and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat held a surprise meeting last week in central Israel which was followed by reports that the two sides plan to accelerate contacts to meet a mid-February deadline for concluding the framework for a final peace accord.

Briefing his ministers on the latest diplomatic moves with the Palestinians, Barak said there was a change in the atmosphere of the discussions, adding that Israel is ready to act with fairness while seeking a final-status accord that would preserve its essential interests.

His optimistic assessment stood in marked contrast to comments Sunday from Palestinian officials.

Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying the February deadline “is not credible any more.”

The two sides are also disagreeing over whether President Clinton is planning to meet with Barak and Arafat during an international conference this weekend in Switzerland.

Palestinian officials say the meeting was firmed up when Arafat met with Clinton last week in Washington, but a source close to Barak said no such meeting had been set.

Meanwhile, Israel’s negotiations with Syria are on hold after talks slated to take place last week were suspended indefinitely.

During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Barak said he has no intention of agreeing to a Syrian demand that he give Damascus a written commitment on final Golan Heights borders before negotiations resume.

Responding to reports from Syrian officials that they would not return to the negotiating table until Israel provides such a commitment, Barak said Israel would commit to a final border only after a full picture emerges on other relevant issues, including security, water rights and normalization.

Barak also said the interests of each side would ultimately lead to a resumption of the talks.

Israeli and Syrian experts were due to travel to Washington for separate talks this week with American officials on a U.S. proposal aimed at breaking the deadlock in negotiations.

Israel dispatched the head of the negotiating team with Syria, Uri Saguy, and the Defense Ministry legal adviser, Moshe Kochanovsky.

The United States proposed the lower-level talks to keep momentum going after Syria postponed last week’s round of talks.

Meanwhile, Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, expressed confidence over the weekend that peace talks with Syria would succeed.

Interviewed on Israel Television, Mofaz said he believes both Syria and Lebanon have a real interest in concluding an accord. Regarding the Syrians, he added, “I believe the main reason propelling them is economic.”

In another development, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service was quoted this week as playing down expectations for full normalization of ties with Israel’s Arab neighbors in future peace accords.

Addressing a group of Israeli representatives to Arab countries, Mossad head Ephraim Halevy said most Arab states view peace with Israel as a type of cease- fire and are not truly interested in cultivating ties.

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