In another last-ditch effort to keep the peace process alive, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators arrived in Washington this week to hold separate meetings with U.S. officials.
The delegations, led by acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israeli attorney Gilad Sher and Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Dahlan, will go to a secluded location in the Washington area.
Israeli media reported that an American proposal would place the Temple Mount under the supervision of the U.N. Security Council, while giving custodianship to the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has rejected transferring sovereignty to either the Palestinians or an Islamic body, but has been open to other solutions.
The Palestinians have so far rejected giving control of the Temple Mount to a non-Muslim authority.
Barak also has said he still wants a comprehensive settlement, but is reportedly willing to postpone discussion of control over the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Palestinians have said they do not want a partial agreement.
The Palestinians need to show greater flexibility and make compromises, said one Israeli official.
“We are willing to explore far-reaching ideas on the Temple Mount,” the official said, and Israel wants a compromise that will allow both sides to say they got what they wanted.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright denied reports of an American proposal on the table and played down the ability of American facilitators to push compromise proposals.
“The United States cannot make existential decisions for either of these parties,” Albright testified Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“There cannot be an American imposition. There can be American assistance, American suggestions, but I can assure you that the only way there will be a comprehensive agreement is if both the parties agree to it.”
Nevertheless, Albright said the United States is “the country that can make a difference” and has the ability to bring the parties together to help them make the tough decisions.
Pressure remains on the current round of talks. “This is the final lap in the process,” an Israeli official said. “If we don’t get some decisions soon, we will miss an historic opportunity.”
The U.S.-sponsored negotiations follow a late-night meeting Monday between Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Israel at Barak’s Kochav Yair home.
The meeting marked the first time the two leaders have sat down together since the U.S.-hosted Camp David summit ended without an agreement in July.
No breakthroughs were reported during the meeting, though Barak described it as “warm” and officials said there was “positive atmosphere.”
President Clinton telephoned during the meeting to urge the two leaders to advance the stalemated talks. Meanwhile, as the negotiators arrived in Washington, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continued work on legislation that pressures the Palestinians not to unilaterally declare a state.
The House International Relations Committee passed a bill Tuesday, sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), that would stop U.S. funds to the Palestinians if they insist on declaring statehood before reaching a peace agreement.
The bill was expected to be brought to the floor as early as Wednesday. Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate.