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Barak tests Jerusalem compromise

JERUSALEM, July 23 (JTA) — As negotiators at Camp David try to find a formula for a lasting Middle East peace, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is said to be sounding out public reaction to a possible compromise on Jerusalem.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday that private surveys conducted for Barak indicated that a large majority of the Israeli public favors an agreement that would end the conflict with the Palestinians, even if it included granting them some sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem.

An opinion survey published in the daily Yediot Achronot over the weekend showed the opposite result.

Jerusalem has emerged as the main sticking point in the Camp David talks — and, given such conflicting results, it is apparently just as difficult an issue for the polls to come to grips with.

While a U.S.-imposed news blackout on the substance of the talks continues, Barak briefed Israeli political figures on the status of the summit.

The two latest figures to hear from him were former members of his governing coalition, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party.

Both recently withdrew from the government to protest the Camp David summit, and both said it is unlikely an agreement will emerge from the talks.

Levy said it appeared Barak was preparing the ground to return to Israel without an agreement. Sharansky said Barak indicated he was open to a government with the opposition Likud Party if the summit fails. Sharansky, who supports such a government, said he would do what he could to help.

Clinton was scheduled to travel directly to Camp David following his return Sunday from a three-day visit to Japan to attend the G-8 summit of leading industrial nations.

Before departing Japan, Clinton said the two sides “have continued to make headway.”

“Whether we get an agreement or not, they have tried. They have really been up there working,” he said.

An aide to Barak told Israel Radio on Sunday that Clinton’s return to the Camp David discussions would be critical to their outcome.

“If there will be a breakthrough, it will be made clear in a very short time,” said one of Barak’s media advisers, Eldar Yaniv.

Barak’s spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, said the fate of the summit would be clear within 24 hours of Clinton’s return.

“It won’t be a whole lot of time,” he told Israel Army Radio. When Clinton returns to Camp David, “We will see if there’s any point in staying here and going on with the talks or to pack the luggage and return home.”

Since first gathering in Camp David on July 11, Israel and the Palestinians have been holding intense negotiations in a bid to come up with a final peace agreement.

Before going to the summit, Barak repeatedly stated that he would not budge from his stance that Jerusalem remain Israel’s united, sovereign capital.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said he would not abandon his demand that the eastern half of the city be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

In recent days, there were reports indicating that Barak is willing to consider an American bridging proposal that would grant Israel and the Palestinians some sort of shared sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in the capital, granting the Palestinian a form of administrative rule in the city.

Arafat was expected to respond to the proposal on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Barak denied that he is being pressed by senior ministers on his negotiating team to make compromises on Jerusalem.

Barak issued the statement Sunday after unnamed aides claimed that ministers Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shlomo Ben-Ami are pushing Barak to soften his stance on Jerusalem, which has emerged as the main sticking point in the Camp David talks.

Barak’s statement also indicated that he had “reprimanded” aides for the “veiled criticism that was voiced toward the ministers.”

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