May likely to come and go without a peace deal

JERUSALEM, May 3 (JTA) — Despite a stepped-up U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian talks, negotiators may have to postpone a deadline for reaching an outline of a final peace accord.

After joining the talks at the Red Sea resort of Eilat on Wednesday, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said it may take up to another two months to put the outline together.

“I would say that over the next six to eight weeks, we are going to see if there is a potential and a need to make big decisions to reach a framework agreement,” Ross told reporters.

Israel and the Palestinians have so far been unable to achieve any breakthroughs in issues that must be settled for a final peace agreement, including the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinians to return to their families’ pre-1948 homes, final borders and Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

The deadline for finishing a framework to use as the basis for an agreement has already been pushed to the end of May, after the sides failed to meet the original Feb. 13 target date.

Despite the slow progress, they still hope the framework, once achieved, will contain enough substance to enable them to reach a final peace accord by Sept. 13.

Ross arrived in Israel on Tuesday night to join the discussions with the aim of helping the two sides overcome the gaps between their positions.

The United States agreed to play a more active role in the talks following Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s meeting with President Clinton in Washington last month.

However, the Palestinians, who until now have pushed for greater U.S. involvement in the talks, reversed themselves this week and voiced reservations about a stepped-up American role.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted as saying this week that the Palestinians envision the United States as simply assisting the implementation of U.N. resolutions urging Israel to withdraw from lands occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Parallel to the current round of talks in Eilat, which are scheduled to end next week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was facing his own domestic political hurdles.

Barak tried this week to secure backing from religious and hawkish coalition members for his proposal to transfer three Arab towns on the outskirts of Jerusalem to full Palestinian control.

But, apparently reflecting Barak’s failure to secure that backing, Foreign Minister David Levy said a Security Cabinet vote to transfer the three towns will be delayed.

Levy said the governing coalition must first be solidified and the Palestinians must show they are willing to reach a compromise with Israel.

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