Middle East diplomacy faces uncertainty


JERUSALEM, Jan. 10 (JTA) – With a visit by President Clinton’s Middle East peace envoy apparently on ice, top Israeli military officials are warning that Clinton’s proposals for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would undermine Israeli security.

In recent meetings with officials from the two sides, Clinton has proposed that Jerusalem be divided according to ethnic composition, that a Palestinian state be established in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that international patrols – rather than the Israeli army – secure the Jordan Valley against threats from the East.

The Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, laid out the army’s reservations on Tuesday in a briefing for the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Mofaz warned that the proposals would “eat away” at Israel’s ability to defend itself in the face of future threats.

To ensure its security, Israel must retain sole control over the Jordan Valley as a defensive buffer and control border crossings to prevent the flow of arms into the Palestinian area, Mofaz said.

Mofaz added that Jerusalem must not be divided, because a lack of contiguity for Jewish neighborhoods would create dangerous friction points. He also called for buffer areas off limits to armed Palestinian security forces.

His appearance before the Knesset committee came as Clinton’s Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, was slated to arrive in the region. Ross’ shuttle mission was postponed, however, prompting some reports that it would not take place at all.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that Ross is delaying his arrival until Israel and the Palestinians work out ways to curb violence in the region.

Palestinian sources, however, said the shuttle mission was canceled altogether after Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat spoke by phone Tuesday night.

Palestinians are especially angered by Clinton’s proposal that, in exchange for Israeli concessions on territory and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Palestinian refugees would give up their “right” to return to the homes they abandoned in Israel. Instead, they could choose to settle abroad, or in the proposed Palestinian state.

Palestinians at the Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the West Bank demonstrated Wednesday against Ross’ visit, with some 20 masked gunmen burning Ross’ photo.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, citing Palestinian opposition to Clinton’s proposals, said Wednesday it makes little difference whether or not Ross comes to the region.

Israeli Cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak met late Tuesday night with Arafat in Gaza to discuss ways to reduce the ongoing violence.

A follow-up meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials was slated for the following night at the Erez Crossing separating Israel from Gaza, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

That meeting would follow security discussions held in Cairo over the weekend.

Some Palestinian officials denied that progress was made at those talks, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff, Gilead Sher, told Israel Radio that the sides had adopted an eight-point plan presented by CIA director George Tenet aimed at reducing the violence and increasing counterterrorism efforts.

In another development, Clinton said this week the incoming Bush administration would not be bound by his peace proposals. That contradicted the spirit of remarks made Sunday to the Israel Policy Forum in New York, when Clinton said he saw no other feasible outline for Mideast peace.

All parties to the contacts are skeptical that a full peace agreement can be achieved before Clinton leaves office Jan. 20 and Barak faces elections Feb. 6.

Both sides have given their conditional acceptance of the plan, but with significant reservations. The Palestinians have said they cannot agree to anything less than a full right of return for refugees and their descendants. Israel has said it cannot grant the Palestinians sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

While the diplomatic track faces an uncertain course, violence continued this week.

On Wednesday, Israeli troops imposed a curfew on the West Bank city of Hebron after shots were fired at a Jewish settler compound in the area.

In other violence that day, Israeli troops fired shots and tear gas at a school in a West Bank village to break up a clash with Palestinian stone- throwers. Two students were shot in the legs and 30 were treated for tear gas inhalation, according to doctors at a local hospital. The army said soldiers had responded to student violence.

On Tuesday, Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian fugitive in the Bethlehem area wanted for involvement in terrorist attacks. His assistant also was apprehended.

Following the arrests, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Israeli army posts near the settlement of Efrat and the tunnel road linking the Etzion bloc of settlements to Jerusalem.

Also Tuesday, the military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for last week’s bombing in Netanya in which some 50 people were wounded. The group said the attack was carried out by Hamad Abu Hijlah, an engineering student from Al-Najah University in Nablus. Hamas said he was the critically injured person who died in an Israeli hospital Monday before being identified.

In other violence, Palestinians said a Palestinian was killed by Israel army fire during confrontations near the West Bank city of Jenin. Israel said troops had come under a torrent of stones, felt threatened and opened fire.

The army also disclosed the findings of an inquiry into the shooting death of a Palestinian near Kalkilya. Israel Radio quoted the army as saying that he had been among a group stoning Israeli cars, endangering the passengers. An army sniper aimed at the Palestinian’s legs, but he was hit in the stomach and died of his injuries.

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