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Israelis, Palestinians Scale Back Expectations for Last Peace Push

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With the days dwindling until President Clinton leaves office, Israeli and Palestinian officials have lowered their expectations for his peace efforts.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have given their conditional acceptance to a bridging proposal Clinton put forward for a final peace accord.

But both sides have a list of reservations to the ideas, and all parties involved are doubting that it will be possible to work out an agreement, or even a framework for an agreement, before Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20.

Instead, it is now believed that Clinton — who is sending his Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, to the region this week for separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders — may issue a presidential declaration summarizing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under his presidency, which could serve as a basis for future talks.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said any declaration must be clear and leave no room for differing interpretations.

“It must provide a solid base for dialogue to reach an agreement” after Israel’s Feb. 6 elections, Ben-Ami said. He added that such a declaration would preferably have the backing of an international gathering that would ease Israeli concerns of pressure from European and other elements for further concessions to the Palestinians.

Both Ben-Ami and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are working to avoid the appearance that Barak is trying to rush through an agreement in order to increase his prospects in the February election.

Until now, a peace agreement has been seen as the main election hope for Barak, who is trailing badly behind Likud Party Chairman Ariel Sharon in opinion polls.

Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher met administration officials in Washington over the weekend and submitted a formal, detailed Israeli response to Clinton’s proposals.

Clinton has suggested that Israel and the Palestinians split control over the Temple Mount, with each side assuming sovereignty over the sites holy to its religion.

The agreement also would grant the Palestinians control over Arab areas of eastern Jerusalem and 95 percent of the West Bank. Israel would annex settlement clusters that comprise the remaining 5 percent, giving the Palestinians Israeli land in exchange.

In return, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — some 4 million to 5 million people — be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel.

Israel already had given its acceptance to Clinton’s proposals, on condition that the Palestinians accept them as well. The document submitted by Sher gave further detail to Israel’s response.

According to reports, Israel’s primary reservations relate to the Palestinian refugee issue and the Temple Mount.

Israel reportedly made clear it would not accept the Palestinian “right of return” but said it would continue, as it has done since 1967, to allow a limited return for humanitarian reasons.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted a senior Israeli official as stating that the refugee problem was a byproduct of the war the Arab states launched against the fledgling Jewish state. While Israel is prepared to recognize the Palestinian suffering, it will not accept responsibility for causing the refugee problem, the official said.

The Palestinians have said they cannot yield on the refugee issue. At a meeting last week, the Arab League called the right of return “sacred.”

Regarding the Temple Mount, Israel said it would not sign any agreement granting the Palestinians sovereignty over the disputed area.

It also noted that remnants of the ancient Jewish temples — which would remain under Israeli control under Clinton’s proposals — include much more than the exposed section of the Western Wall.

Palestinian negotiators have sought to limit Israeli authority to those sections of the wall that front the Western Wall Plaza, and sometimes offer even less than that.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted a political source in Jerusalem as saying that the Israeli document also included alternate Israeli proposals to transfer control over the upper level of the Temple Mount to an international body or group of states.

Israel has stressed that any progress in diplomatic efforts is contingent upon a noticeable Palestinian effort to reduce the level of violence in the territories.

On Sunday, CIA Director George Tenet held talks in Cairo with Israeli and Palestinian officials. The head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, Avi Dichter, and the head of the Israel Defense Force’s planning branch, Maj. Gen. Shlomo Yanai, attended the meeting, which focused on security cooperation.

Cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former army chief of staff, was to have taken part, but Barak’s office said Shahak was needed for important consultations in Israel.

The heads of the Palestinian security services, Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, were among the Palestinian team.

Meanwhile, violence continued in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, a Palestinian boy was seriously wounded in clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian rioters near Ramallah.

The same day, Israeli troops neutralized several roadside bombs discovered near the Nahal Oz Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Last Friday, a Palestinian girl was killed by IDF fire after Palestinian gunmen fired at a Jewish settlement near Hebron. The IDF expressed regret over the death and said the army had offered medical help, which was refused.

In a separate incident that day, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man when he tried to scale a boundary fence in the Gaza Strip.

On the political scene, Barak is coming under increasing pressure not to engage in political negotiations during the election period, when his government lacks a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, Sharon has come under criticism for failing to detail his political program.

Sharon has laid out what he terms his “red lines” with the Palestinians – – including no division of Jerusalem, continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and no Palestinian right of return — but he says revealing any more would be taken as a starting point for negotiations.

Critics call Sharon’s proposals wildly unrealistic, given the concessions the Palestinians feel they already have won from Barak and Clinton.

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