Peace talks deadlocked on two fronts


NEW YORK, Feb. 6 (JTA) — Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be getting nowhere fast, and prospects for reviving Israeli-Syrian negotiations appear equally grim.

U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross returned home over the weekend after several days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to secure any breakthroughs.

He had come to the region to help the two sides make progress toward reaching a deadline next week for drafting the outline of a final peace accord.

But instead, he found the two sides unable to break a deadlock on a different issue — namely, which lands would be included in an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 6 percent of the West Bank.

Palestinian officials want land near Jerusalem, but these areas were not included in the redeployment maps that the Israeli Cabinet approved last week.

The argument is a familiar one, having erupted last November when Palestinian officials demanded a say in which lands would be turned over in a previous Israeli withdrawal. Israel has repeatedly maintained that it has sole say in determining which lands would be turned over.

The earlier dispute was resolved in January, when Israel withdrew from an additional 5 percent of the West Bank and said it would be open to Palestinian requests for the next withdrawal.

This time around, Palestinian officials have dug in their heels, charging that Israel has turned a deaf ear to their request for areas around Jerusalem. Israel is remaining equally firm in its stance that it will make the final decision regarding its West Bank handovers.

Nor can the two sides even agree on the current state of their negotiations: Palestinian officials are saying that the talks are in crisis, but Israeli leaders are downplaying the problems as temporary disagreements.

Meanwhile, both sides — now joined by Ross — are saying that next week’s deadline for drafting the outline of a final peace accord will not be met.

At the same time, the Israeli-Syrian peace track — on a downhill course since talks between the two sides were suspended in mid-January — is looking equally unpromising.

Shortly after Syria suspended the talks, demanding that Israel give a written pledge to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights before negotiations resume, Hezbollah increased its activities against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

Given the widely held belief that Damascus gave the go-ahead to Hezbollah to step up the fighting against Israel, each new Hezbollah assault makes it harder for Israeli officials to find a way back to the negotiations with Syria.

In the latest of its attacks, Hezbollah detonated a roadside bomb Sunday that killed an Israeli soldier and wounded at least six others.

Last week, Hezbollah gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers and, in a separate attack, the second-in-command of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army.

In retaliation, Israel made a failed attempt last Friday to assassinate a senior Hezbollah officer. This prompted Hezbollah officials to threaten to strike at northern Israel with Katyusha rockets.

Meanwhile, a majority of Israelis still support pressing ahead with the Syrian peace track despite the Hezbollah attack last week that killed three Israeli soldiers.

According to a poll published over the weekend in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, 67 percent of Israelis want to continue negotiating with Syria, and 61 percent said they believe Israel will be more secure if a deal is reached.

Nevertheless, 63 percent also said Israel should react forcefully to Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon.

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