Middle East Crisis Headlines - 1/11/2000
US envoy Dennis Ross has indefinitely postponed a Mideast peace mission amid growing doubts the two sides can reach any agreements before President Bill Clinton leaves office on January 20th. The postponement came after Palestinian officials made it clear that they did not want to be pressured on the US peace plan. However, US officials explained the postponement diplomatically. "It's very hard to imagine...that we could see any serious negotiation, let alone a conclusion, to some of these discussions with the serious level of violence in the region," White House spokesman Jake Siewert told reporters. "At this point, Dennis still plans to travel to the region, but we have not set a revised date...We're looking right now at whether we can see some reduction in the level of violence."
In an attempt to reduce violence and create an atmosphere for peace talks, Israel and the Palestinians have been holding high-level discussions on restoring security cooperation. Israeli and Palestinian security officials held marathon talks overnight at the Israel-Gaza border and reached some informal understandings. "The real test will be on the ground," said Israeli Cabinet Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who headed the Israeli delegation. Shahak told Israel Radio that Israeli and Palestinian military officials are meeting in the field today to map out ways to reduce friction and violence. As a goodwill gesture, Israel removed some key roadblocks in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip and reopened a number of border crossings. According to Israeli newspapers, CIA chief George Tenet was present at the talks last night.
The situation has been relatively calm this week, and negotiations are expected to resume in the coming days. The talks will be headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia. Sources say the negotiators will try to draft a treaty outline or declaration of principles, with each side listing its position on points of dispute. Once the work is completed, Dennis Ross would come to the region to try to narrow the gaps. Major differences remain on Jerusalem and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon kicked off his election campaign last night before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters from his Likud party here in Jerusalem. In his speech, Sharon said he would offer concessions to the Palestinians, but drew loud applause when he said Israel would not negotiate under fire. "There can be no real peace without concessions. The peace we will achieve will be based on compromise. But in any peace agreement we will protect the national interests vital for Israel's survival and security," he said. Sharon, speaking against the backdrop of a photograph of the walled Old City of Jerusalem, laid out traditional red lines, retreating from the sweeping concessions Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians. "A government under my leadership will keep Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, whole and united under Israeli sovereignty forever," he said. He added that Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to return to Israel, Jewish settlements would not be dismantled, the Jordan Valley would remain under Israeli control, and Israel would not return to the 1967 borders. "The government of Israel under my leadership will not conduct negotiations under fire and won't reward violence," he said. "There is no reason for Israel to behave like a defeated and humiliated country."