U.S. to host Israeli-Palestinian talks


JERUSALEM, March 8 (JTA) — The United States will again play host to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in an attempt to jump-start stalled peace talks.

After a month of mutual recriminations, Prime Minister Ehud Barak held a surprise meeting on Tuesday night, with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at an undisclosed location in central Israel.

This was followed by a second meeting Wednesday in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

During that meeting, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross — who had returned to the region after failing to restart the talks last week — announced that the two sides had agreed to resume peace negotiations later this month in Washington.

Neither Barak nor Arafat were expected to attend the talks, which Ross said would resume after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins Thursday and ends March 19.

Instead of the two leaders, delegations from the two sides would participate, Ross said.

“The parties made good progress in addressing and resolving” the issues that have led to a monthlong deadlock in the negotiations, Ross said.

“The objective is to achieve a framework agreement as soon as possible, so that all the permanent status issues can be resolved by September 13,” he said.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since February, when they failed to reach agreement on which lands would be included in an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank. The move was originally to have been carried out in January.

The Palestinians have demanded that the handover include areas near Jerusalem, whose eastern half they want as the capital of an independent state.

Israel did not offers those areas, maintaining that it alone would determine which lands were included.

In the meantime, the two sides also missed a February deadline for concluding a framework agreement for a final peace accord.

According to Palestinian sources, Barak and Arafat set a new May deadline for the framework agreement during their meetings.

Breaking the monthlong impasse, they also agreed that Israel would carry out the 6.1 percent withdrawal in April. Under the new arrangement, Israel would offer areas totaling 10 percent of the West Bank, from which the Palestinians will choose the 6.1 percent.

It was not clear whether any areas near Jerusalem would be included in the Israeli offer.

The two leaders also agreed that Israel would carry out a third and final West Bank redeployment by July, and that the final peace accord would be reached by the original deadline of Sept. 13.

Ross was expected to return to Washington following Wednesday’s discussions.

Barak and Arafat were scheduled to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

Israel Radio reported that Israel is considering a number of confidence-building gestures, including opening a northern safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, releasing Palestinian prisoners and refunding tax revenues to the Palestinians.

The opposition Likud Party criticized the Barak-Arafat meetings, saying Barak was readying a withdrawal that would lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

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