With trouble at home, Barak returns to peace talks

JERUSALEM, Jan. 31 (JTA) — Israel has launched diplomatic efforts on several fronts to try and build new momentum for faltering peace negotiations.

While a campaign finance scandal brewed at home, Prime Minister Ehud Barak held talks Sunday in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has often acted as an intermediary in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Last week Mubarak paid a surprise visit to Damascus, where he played a similar role in the stalled Israeli-Syrian talks.

While Barak was in Cairo, Foreign Minister David Levy flew to Moscow for the start of multilateral peace talks later this week in Moscow. The talks, reconvening for the first time in nearly four years, will bring together Israel and some of its Arab neighbors to discuss such regional issues as economic cooperation, water and refugees.

On another diplomatic front, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began marathon discussions to try to hammer out an outline of a final peace agreement before a mid-February deadline.

Palestinian officials were expected to make it clear during the discussions in Moscow that Israel would first have to make progress in the bilateral negotiations before the multilaterals would get off the ground.

Speaking at a news conference with Mubarak, Barak stressed the importance of seizing the “golden opportunity to make peace.”

In his remarks, the premier emphasized Israel’s intention to move forward simultaneously on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks.

Playing one track against the other, he said, would only “end up with a loss of trust on both sides.”

The latest Israeli-Syrian negotiations got off to a dramatic start in December, but are now suspended following a Syrian demand that Israel commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before the talks resume.

There has meanwhile been little progress reported in the Israeli- Palestinian talks. Both side have acknowledged that the February deadline will likely not be met.

Observers have suggested that negotiations will pick up following the expected arrival in the region later this week of U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

A meeting between Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, also slated for later this week, is expected to push the negotiations forward.

Complicating the picture is the domestic political storm that has erupted in Israel over the attorney general’s decision to order a police probe into the election fund-raising practices of Barak’s One Israel bloc.

The probe, which also targets several other parties, was launched after a state comptroller’s report was issued last week charging illegal campaign funding practices.

The report said some of the funds used in the 1999 election campaign came from foreign donors — a violation of campaign financing laws.

While in Cairo, Barak said the police investigation would not hinder his efforts to reach peace accords.

“This government was elected to advance the peace process and to do it without any connection to any internal problem that could arise in Israel,” he said.

But he also indicated that progress in negotiations could accelerate if his government did not have to deal with the probe.

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