Israel, Palestinians Visit D.c. for Final Clinton-era Peace Effort

Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to travel to Washington this week for separate talks with U.S. officials on the peace process.

The planned talks represent the last effort on the part of U.S. officials to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal before President Clinton leaves office next month.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami met Saturday night with senior Palestinian officials, seeking a basis for renewed negotiations.

Despite the diplomatic efforts, there was more bloodshed in the region Sunday.

Two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip, and an Israeli sustained serious head wounds in a shooting attack in the West Bank.

In another incident, an explosion killed a senior activist in Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank. The Israeli army said the man apparently blew himself up while preparing a bomb. A Fatah official called the blast an Israeli assassination.

In more violence, Palestinians fired on two Israeli buses in the Gaza Strip, but no one was hurt. In the West Bank, Palestinians detonated three roadside bombs as an Israeli military convoy was passing, but they did not cause any injuries.

The decision to hold talks in Washington follows weeks of diplomatic feelers to renew negotiations, suspended by Israel after the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September.

Late last week, Arafat met with Ben-Ami. Just hours after that meeting, clashes broke out in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Six Palestinians were killed in last Friday’s violence.

Arafat, who met Sunday with a delegation of left-wing Israeli legislators, said he was ready to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“If it is needed, why not?” Arafat asked.

Barak expressed hope Sunday that the Washington talks would lead to a resumption of negotiations on a final-status agreement.

Barak resigned last week, saying he sought a new mandate from the public to end the violence and forge peace with the Palestinians. His re-election hopes effectively hinge on a peace deal.

The special elections for prime minister triggered by Barak’s resignation are expected to be held in early February.

Opinion polls have shown Barak trailing his two potential challengers from the opposition Likud Party, party chairman Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Likud will hold party primaries Tuesday.

Netanyahu still must overcome legal hurdles before he can run. Israeli law stipulates that only sitting Knesset members can run for prime minister in the special election, and Netanyahu resigned from the Knesset after Barak defeated him in May 1999.

The Knesset’s Law Committee approved a bill Sunday that would allow any citizen to run in the early election. The full Knesset already has given preliminary approval to the bill, which must pass three additional votes before taking effect.

The bill is expected to return to the Knesset plenum Monday. But Netanyahu, wary of facing the same political deadlock that Barak has confronted, said last week he would only run for the premiership if the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, which would result in general elections for both Parliament and prime minister.

The fervently Orthodox Shas Party holds the key to the situation, as the backing of its 17 Knesset members is needed to assemble a 61-person majority for an early election bill.

Shas’ rabbinic leaders planned to decide Monday whether to support the bill. Shas officials are believed to oppose general elections for fear that they would lose some seats to the Likud.

While politicians sort out the election puzzle, Likud officials condemned the government’s new diplomatic effort, saying they would not consider themselves bound by any agreement Barak reaches in the pre-election period.

Reports suggest that the diplomatic breakthrough resulted from Barak’s willingness to grant the Palestinians sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in exchange for deferring the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote that U.S. officials have put forward a new proposal in which the Palestinians would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount. They also would receive control over 95 percent of the West Bank and an additional 3 percent of land within Israel’s pre-1967 border.

In exchange, the refugee issue would not be mentioned in the accord, which would explicitly state that the Palestinians relinquish further claims on Israel.

Ha’aretz also quoted Palestinian sources as saying Arafat has come under intense American pressure in light of the Israeli elections.

In public remarks Saturday night, Barak rejected the notion of Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, insisting there had been no shift in his position on the matter.

Cabinet minister Yossi Beilin, a dove, said no agreement had been reached with the Palestinians on any issues.

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