Peace Process Stalls as Israeli Election Looms

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Talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on security cooperation and final-status issues made little headway over the weekend, and were suspended on Monday when an Israeli citizen was found murdered in Gush Katif and the IDF renewed its tight closure on the Gaza Strip.

With departing US President Bill Clinton already resigned to handing the baton of Mideast peacemaking over to incoming President-elect George W. Bush on Saturday, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been trying to sum up in direct talks exactly where the peace process stands, but to little avail. CIA director George Tennet also has been spearheading parallel security discussions, hoping to renew cooperation or at least keep things quiet during Clinton's last week in office.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also confronts a February 6 deadline, when he will face a disappointed electorate ready to replace him with noted hawk Ariel Sharon. To improve his fading chances of re-election, Barak has given his more popular Labor party rival and arch-dove Shimon Peres a higher profile in the campaign and in contacts with the Palestinians.

Peres and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat met on Saturday night in Gaza, as the two sides continued the latest round of security and diplomatic negotiations begun late Thursday night at the Erez crossing into Gaza. Much of Thursday's talks centered around a demand by PA Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo to declare Barak a "war criminal," while Saturday night the discussions focused on Israeli responses to Palestinian reservations regarding the American bridging proposals recently outlined by Clinton.

Peres and Arafat last met in the beginning of November, and agreed to a cease-fire in the Palestinian uprising - a cease-fire that was shattered the very next day when a car bomb in Jerusalem killed two Israelis. Concerned that Palestinian terrorist attacks in the next couple weeks could doom the Barak campaign, Peres said on Monday that he had demanded Arafat lower the level of violence in the territories in the period leading up to the elections, according to an ARMY RADIO report this morning.

"We saw what happened in1996 when terrorism decided the elections," Peres reportedly told Arafat on Saturday night. "In general, terror must be stopped, and how much more so during election time." Peres lost his seat as acting prime minister in 1996 to challenger Binyamin Netanyahu after a wave of Hamas suicide bus bombings rocked Israel.

Trying to head-off domestic criticism for Peres' clumsy remark, deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh snickered in an interview this morning, "Peres has made more successful statements in the past. But in any case Israel demands the cessation of terrorism without regard to the elections."

On Sunday, the Palestinians canceled another round of discussions in protest of what they deemed Israel's failure to "reduce the tension." The negotiating teams were slated to meet today at the Erez junction for both diplomatic and security talks, but Israel was the one to call them off this time, due to the abduction and murder of an Israeli farmer in the Gush Katif bloc in southern Gaza. Barak decided this afternoon to renew negotiations with the PA on Tuesday, ISRAEL RADIO reported.

"This is a terrible blow for the peace process," Barak said in an interview today with AL JAZEERA TV, referring to the killing of Roni Tzalach. "And I know that at the same time, when every Palestinian is killed, it is a blow to the peace process."

Barak repeated for the popular Arabic satellite TV station his newest "red lines," - Israel will never agree to the Palestinian refugees' "right of return," and he "does not intend to sign an agreement transferring sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians." Barak also spelled these out at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, which was not attended by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Ben-Ami explained that he was absent due to a conflicting photo shoot for a feature story in this weekend's edition of YEDIOT AHARONOT. But speculation is that Ben-Ami is not happy with the new prominent role given to Peres in negotiations with the Palestinians. Up until recently, Ben-Ami has led the Israeli delegation in the peace talks.

Peres has also been ruffling feathers among staunch Barak supporters within Labor, who were upset when he refused over the weekend to douse talk of replacing Barak as the party's candidate. In comments on Friday and Saturday, Peres said that since he had not started the "draft Peres" effort, he could not order them to stop.

Activists supporting Peres' candidacy began distributing "Peres for Prime Minister" T-shirts and bumper stickers last week, and brought a letter to the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem yesterday asking Barak to quit the race, but security guards would not take the petition.

In a countermove, half the Labor Knesset faction signed a letter urging Peres to state clearly that he is not running and end the activities of his supporters. Finally today, Peres instructed his supporters to stop pushing for his candidacy and to start backing Barak. "I want to make clear that I have no connection to the discussions of my candidacy," Peres told a Labor Youth convention. "I call upon people who are willing to listen and ask them to stop acting on behalf of my candidacy. This is not the time."

Nonetheless, several leftist MKs and ministers are still hoping that this Friday's opinion polls will convince Barak he has no chance to win the election and should step down. The latest Friday polls showed Sharon maintaining a 20% lead over Barak, while Peres and Sharon are running neck-and-neck.

Some Labor sources said Peres was still interested in running, but had decided to only enter the race if Barak voluntarily dropped out within the next two weeks, giving him just enough time to mount a campaign.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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