Middle East Crisis Headlines - 1/3/2000
President Clinton held two rounds of talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House, but as expected, failed to achieve a breakthrough. It now seems highly unlikely that a peace agreement will be signed before Clinton leaves office on January 20th. White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the talks were "productive" and "useful," particularly with regard to persuading Arafat to crack down on violence. Siewert said Arafat told Clinton he is "prepared to immediately resume cooperation on terrorism, to intensify efforts to stop the shootings, and to arrest those responsible for the violence." Siewert said a peace agreement will be difficult "while there is an atmosphere of violence, and I think everyone understands that." The White House said Clinton would decide his next step after talking by telephone today with Barak and Arafat. Arafat expressed strong reservations to Clinton`s peace plan. The key sticking points are sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel. "The ball is now in the American and Israeli court," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Hassan Asfour. "Israel now has to decide whether it wants peace based on international laws, which give the Palestinians their minimum rights, or wants to pursue its aggression and war against the Palestinian people."
There is a growing pessimism among Israeli officials following the failure of the Washington talks, and skepticism with regard to Arafat`s promises to curb the violence. "The question is the degree of seriousness and to what extent [the Palestinians] intend to approach the task with clean hands," Cabinet Minister Amnon Lipkin Shahak told Army Radio. Earlier, Prime Minister Ehud Barak even accused the Palestinian Authority of direct involvement in recent terrorist attacks. "We need to concentrate on reducing the terror," Barak told Israel Television. "There is no real way to carry out contacts and negotiations with the Palestinians under these conditions." Barak also raised war jitters here, saying he told the military brass at the start of the Palestinian uprising to prepare for the possibility of a full-scale regional confrontation.
Indeed, the volatile Lebanese border is already heating up, as predicted by Israeli generals. This morning, Hizbollah guerillas fired mortar shells which landed near an Israeli army post, causing no damage or casualties. The army said Israeli artillery returned fire. The attack occurred at the disputed Chebaa Farms, an area still claimed by Lebanon despite UN verification of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Hizbollah has used the Chebaa Farms as an excuse to continue its "jihad" (holy war) against Israel. On the Palestinian front, shooting attacks are continuing. Two Israelis were wounded, one critically, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire at their car near an army checkpoint just outside of Jerusalem. The Israeli army said it fired tank rounds at a Palestinian police post near the Arab town of Ramallah north of Jerusalem, during a fierce gun battle last night. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen also exchanged heavy fire in several parts of the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Barak is heating up the election campaign with a sharp attack on his challenger, Likud leader Ariel Sharon. As expected, Barak attacked Sharon in the place he is most vulnerableâ€”the unpopular war in Lebanon which Sharon engineered as defense minister in 1982. Barak also blamed Sharon for sparking the Palestinian uprising by his visit to the Temple Mount. He said voters should not be fooled by Sharon`s new image as a benevolent elder statesman. Sharon, he said, is like the wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, "lying under the bedcovers, with big teeth and wearing a head scarf." The public knows he is hiding his sharp teeth, Barak said. Comparing Sharon to the "Big Bad Wolf" could be a sign of desperation; Barak trails Sharon by about 20 percentage points in the polls, and each shooting and bombing costs him more votes.