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Israeli official predicts return to talks

NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (JTA) – Now is the “moment of truth for Palestinians to decide if they want an agreement” with Israel, the Jewish state’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said during a visit here last week.

But what if the Palestinians decide they really do not want an agreement with Israel if it means making painful compromises on Jerusalem?

President Clinton is scheduled to meet at the White House with Yasser Arafat on Thursday and next Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But if he fails to put together a formula to restart the peace talks, the Palestinian leader may unilaterally declare an independent state – as early as next week.

And how will Israel respond if Arafat does declare a state, with no prospect for resuming the peace talks anytime soon?

“We will have to respond by disengaging” and setting up a “flexible line of defense” to protect Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Ben-Ami told reporters at a special briefing for the Jewish media here last Friday, a day after Barak appointed him permanent Israeli foreign minister. “We’re not going to annex every part of the West Bank,” he said. But the Israeli army will set up “defensive blocs” to protect the settlements.

On the other hand, if the peace talks do somehow get restarted, what is the likelihood that a settlement can be achieved, given the violence of the past two months?

Is there any hope of reaching an agreement on Jerusalem, given the hardening of positions on both sides in the wake of Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount and the Palestinians’ destruction of Jewish holy sites in Nablus and Jericho?

Given what has happened, Ben-Ami told reporters, it “sounds unrealistic, perhaps even surrealistic” to believe that the two sides can strike an agreement on Jerusalem. But he said, “we need to believe that there is a possibility” for a settlement.

“There is a crisis of confidence and trust with the parties,” the foreign minister said. “There needs to be a process of mutual healing.”

That does not mean the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have to become friends. “This process is not about love, it’s about peace,” he said.

Ben-Ami is philosophical about the violence that has engulfed his country during the past five weeks. “This may be a crisis that was needed for the parties to understand” the need to compromise, he said.

The good news, he said, is that the Palestinians were “totally unable to erode Israel’s political support throughout the world.”

Claiming that the European countries have pretty much stood by Israel throughout the recent conflict, Ben-Ami said, “Nobody really succumbed to the pressure of the Palestinians.”

Arafat will see that “this violence leads nowhere,” he predicted, and eventually the peace talks will resume.

But if and when those talks do resume, things will have changed.

“When we get back to the negotiations, some of our positions will be strengthened and some will be weakened,” Ben-Ami said.

In particular, Israel will be even more resistant to the idea of granting Palestinian refugees any right of return – an issue that is of crucial importance to the Palestinian leadership.

But Ben-Ami said he has “no doubt whatsoever” that if a peace agreement is eventually hammered out and presented to the Israeli electorate in a referendum, there will be a “landslide” vote in favor of it.

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