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Peace Talks Turn More Intense As Prospect for Deal Turn Dimmer

Despite a flurry of diplomatic activity, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are sounding increasingly downbeat about the prospects for peace.

“No movement in the Palestinian position is perceptible, and therefore it is not yet clear if there is a partner on the other side who is ready” to reach an agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement on Monday.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat returned the criticism, blaming “Israeli intransigence” for the current deadlock in the talks.

The exchange came as direct contacts between the two sides continued in the Middle East – and as U.S. officials concluded a week of high-level separate meetings with the two sides in New York and Washington.

The talks in the United States were aimed at putting into writing the ideas raised at the Camp David summit in July.

The intensified diplomatic activity is intended to determine if the gaps between the two sides – particularly over the future of Jerusalem – can be bridged.

The intensity also confirms the sense that time is running out.

While other deadlines have come and gone, Israeli and U.S. officials seem increasingly convinced, as Israel’s acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami put it, “This is the last shot.”

Ben-Ami, speaking to journalists in New York last week, said the next 10 days would be critical in determining whether any agreement is possible.

Ben-Ami acknowledged that not much has changed since Camp David, but said he hoped that the fact that “time is running out” would inject a sense of urgency into the discussions.

At the same time, the acting foreign minister, who met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others last week and addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, refused to predict what would happen if no breakthrough occurred within this time frame.

“We’ve had too many apocalyptic prophesies in the Middle East,” said Ben-Ami. “I don’t want to add another one. We’d rather concentrate our energies on trying to reach a deal.”

The two sides have to reach agreement on a number of difficult issues, including final borders, refugees, Jewish settlements, security and Jerusalem.

Since Camp David, the focus of debate has centered on Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded the eastern half as capital of a future state, including control over the Islamic and Christian holy sites.

For Israel, Jerusalem is its undivided capital.

And while Barak has reportedly said he would consider granting the Palestinians limited control over some parts, he has been unyielding in stressing that no Palestinian or Islamic sovereignty will be extended over the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.

Israel has rejected a Palestinian proposal to give sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Islamic world’s Jerusalem Committee. The site, known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, is home to two major mosques.

Barak reiterated his opposition to Arafat’s idea to his Cabinet on Monday.

Explaining the Israeli opposition to the idea Arafat recently presented to Clinton, Ben-Ami said, “We don’t see much of a difference” between Palestinian sovereignty and Muslim sovereignty.

He also noted that Iraq and Iran, archenemies of Israel, are members of that Jerusalem Committee.

Ben-Ami did say that Israel had not rejected an idea raised by Clinton at Camp David that the U.N. Security Council be involved in sovereignty over the area, but that the Palestinians had rejected it.

There is continuing speculation that in putting forth its own bridging proposals, the U.S. administration would revive the idea of an Israeli- Palestinian agreement that excluded the most difficult issues surrounding Jerusalem and refugees.

Arafat reportedly rejected such exclusions at Camp David, and Barak, too, is believed to need a full deal in order to sell it to the Israeli public.

The latest developments coincided with the publication this week by Newsweek magazine of what it said was the full text, minus two annexes, of a draft peace accord drawn up in secret talks five years ago by Israeli Yossi Beilin, now Israel’s justice minister, and Palestinian official Abu Mazen.

According to reports, many of the ideas emerging from the current talks are similar to those in the draft document. Clinton also reportedly used it as a basis for the discussions at Camp David in July.

The ideas in the secret understanding included:

Creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state on over 90 percent of the West Bank, with Israeli annexation of large settlement blocs.

A 12-year Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley as well as early warning stations.

Agreement in principle of Jerusalem as a shared capital of two states, with municipal arrangements made to enable the functioning of the city until a final arrangement is reached.

Creation of a mechanism for compensation to Palestinian refugees.

At the time, Beilin advocated moving quickly toward a final settlement with the Palestinians, rather then let the interim period drag on. The draft agreement had been reached at the beginning of November in 1995 and was to be presented to Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

However, a few days later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist opposed to his peace policies with the Palestinians. Ben-Ami, however, downplayed the importance of the Beilin-Mazen document, telling journalists last week that “we don’t get the impression” that either Arafat or Abu Mazen still find it relevant.

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