Barak says he has a plan


JERUSALEM, Feb. 21 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he will try to formulate a package that could break weeks of deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Barak’s comments came during a speech Monday to a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was on its annual mission to Israel.

His comments also came before the U.S. Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, arrived in the region.

Members of the Presidents Conference also visited the Golan Heights, where they were briefed by settler leaders regarding a withdrawal from the area as part of a peace deal with Syria.

During his speech to the delegation, Barak referred to efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian track as being “in the interests of both sides.”

Barak downplayed the significance of the recent stalemates in talks with both the Palestinians and Syria.

Just the same, he blamed the Palestinians for the current situation. “Somehow they felt the time is not right for them to expose their flexibilities,” he said.

Yet he remained confident that Israel’s negotiating partners continue to consider peace a strategic interest. “It was quite predictable that difficulties will arise,” he said.

Barak condemned a barrage of anti-Israel rhetoric in the Arab press and among officials in Arab and Islamic governments that followed the recent Israeli bombings of civilian power stations in Lebanon.

Some government-backed publications and officials in Syria, for example, have compared the Israeli attacks in Lebanon to Nazi acts.

Barak also said the harsh statements “reflect a certain level of frustration” with the current situation.

He defended the Israeli attacks in Lebanon, which followed the recent deaths of seven Israeli soldiers during fighting with Hezbollah gunmen.

He said the attacks were a response to systematic violations by Hezbollah of a 1996 cease-fire agreement in which Israel and the Shi’ite gunmen had agreed not to fire from or on civilian areas.

The Israeli airstrikes, Barak added, were also meant to tell Lebanon and Syria that they should prevent any attacks against Israel once Israeli troops withdraw from Lebanon — and to “shape the rules of the game gradually for the post-redeployment period.”

Barak also reiterated his pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July. Although Israel would prefer that the withdrawal be part of an agreement with Syria, Barak was adamant that with or without such an accord, Israel’s presence in Lebanon will end within months.

“In less than four months, our boys will be back home,” he said. “It will make our defense of the northern border more effective, rather than less effective.”

Reflecting the hostile Arab reaction to the recent Israeli airstrikes, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Lebanon on Saturday and voiced support for Hezbollah gunmen trying to oust Israeli soldiers from the country.

Mubarak became the first Egyptian leader to visit the Lebanese capital since Lebanon won independence in 1943.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy later told Israel Radio that Mubarak’s remarks Saturday were “worrisome.”

A top Israeli security adviser, Danny Yatom, traveled to Cairo on Sunday to defend Israel’s policy in Lebanon.

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