JERUSALEM, May 9 (JTA) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have agreed to keep talking, but apparently they agree on little else.
As a result, it looks likely that another deadline will come and go with little progress achieved.
During their meeting Sunday night, Barak and Arafat reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process, but they failed to bridge the large gaps separating them.
Last week, Palestinian negotiators broke off talks in Eilat after Israel presented a map of a proposed Palestinian entity covering about two-thirds of the West Bank. Palestinian officials balked at the plan, charging that Israel wanted to annex one-third of the region.
Borders are one of the thorny issues facing the two sides as they try to reach a final peace agreement. Other issues include Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The two sides had hoped to draw up an outline of a final peace treaty by next week, but few now believe the two sides will meet that deadline.
After meeting for nearly three hours in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Sunday in what was their first summit since March Barak and Arafat agreed that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams should resume their talks, which they did briefly this week.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who participated in the Barak- Arafat meeting, gave a sober assessment of where things stand.
“The gaps are large, very large. We shouldn’t fool ourselves,” Levy told Israel Radio.
Levy said that although it was likely the May deadline would be missed, Israel and the Palestinians hope to keep a Sept. 13 deadline for concluding a full agreement.
Palestinian officials said the Barak-Arafat summit addressed all the contentious issues in the final-status talks. They also said Arafat called on Barak to stop Jewish settlement activity and to free Palestinian prisoners.
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who arrived in the region last week to try to help the sides iron out their differences, said this week before returning to Washington that much work remains to be done, but progress is possible.
Ross is expected to return to the region next week. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may visit Israel next month if there is sufficient progress in the talks, according to American officials.
The United States agreed to play a more active role in the talks following Arafat’s meeting with President Clinton in Washington last month.
Meanwhile, Barak has his own domestic problems.
On Monday, the prime minister appeared to backtrack on his earlier statements that he wants to transfer three villages near Jerusalem to full Palestinian control.
He said he may not be able to proceed with the plan for weeks or possibly months because of strong domestic opposition.
The Israeli right wing, along with conservatives in Barak’s government, opposes the transfer of power in the villages of Abu Dis, Al- Azariya and Sawahara, saying the move would only whet the Palestinian appetite for Jerusalem.
Barak spent last week fending off threats by two coalition members, the National Religious Party and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, to quit the government over the transfer issue.
Speaking Monday on Army Radio, Barak said Israel has no interest in annexing the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in those villages.
“We prayed for 2,000 years, three times a day, for Jerusalem,” Barak said. “We never prayed for Al-Azariya. We never prayed for Abu Dis.”