Middle East Crisis Headlines – 12/27/2000

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In a dramatic sign that the Palestinians are leaning toward accepting US President Bill Clinton’s latest peace proposals, Yasser Arafat will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Egypt tomorrow. It will be the first direct meeting between the two leaders since the violent Palestinian uprising began in late September. The announcement was made in Jerusalem by Barak’s office early this morning, and came after the Israeli leader spoke with Arafat on the telephone overnight. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak will join Barak and Arafat at the Sharm El Sheik resort, located along the eastern shore of the Sinai peninsula. Both Barak and Arafat attended an emergency summit meeting hosted by Clinton at the Sinai resort in October, but they did not meet directly. That parley ended up leading nowhere when Arafat failed to keep his commitment to end the violent uprising.

Apparently knowing that the Barak-Arafat meeting was in the works, Clinton extended the deadline for formal replies to his peace proposals from today until Friday. Still, the Israeli cabinet met this morning to discuss the peace deal, which includes major Israeli land withdrawals from the disputed territories and the eastern half of Jerusalem. The cabinet will reportedly meet again late tonight after no final decision was taken at the morning meeting. Dozens of Israelis protested outside of the government office building in Jerusalem where the ministers met. Larger protests are being planned for Friday around the Old City. Barak is also due to convene his so-called “peace cabinet” to finalize the official government response to the US deal. The special inner cabinet is comprised of former prime minister Shimon Peres, his protégé Yossi Beilen who helped Peres pursue the original Oslo accord in 1993, Meretz party head Yossi Sarid (who is not actually a member of the full cabinet) and Center party head Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

News reports say Yasser Arafat may give his final answer regarding the US proposals when he meets with a US consular official in the Gaza Strip late tonight. If Arafat gives a preliminary thumbs up to the Clinton plan (it is virtually a given that Barak’s leftist cabinet will do so), he is expected to fly to Washington on Friday night, followed by Barak on Saturday night. The two Mideast leaders will meet separately with Clinton before holding a three-way summit early next week where any last minute snags are to be ironed out. Clinton reportedly wants any peace accord to be signed at the White House by January 10. Israel radio reports today that Clinton may submit any accord for approval at the United Nations.

As he did after the failed Camp David summit last July, Shimon Peres surprised some Israeli commentators yesterday by questioning the depth of concessions that Barak is apparently willing to accept at this time. He said Israeli leaders must move slowly when making far reaching concessions that could divide the nation. Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Health Minister Roni Milo, Diaspora Minister Michael Melchior and Science Minister Matan Vina’i (a former general like Barak and Lipkin-Shahak) have also publicly questioned Barak’s reported willingness to cede Israeli control over the sacred Temple Mount. Meanwhile several opposition Knesset members have questioned the legality of the current negotiations. Speaking at a special Knesset committee meeting yesterday, they said the signing of an accord by a minority caretaker government would put Israel in a serious international bind if the Knesset later rejected the pact. A Foreign Ministry legal advisor urged the government to include a clause in any accord stating that it would not go into effect without subsequent Knesset approval.

An opinion poll in today’s Jerusalem Post indicates that the Israeli public will turn down any peace pact signed by Barak. If the deal looks anything like the one outlined in media reports in recent days, the poll shows that a majority of 52% would reject it and only 38% support it. However, a majority also expects that Arafat will turn down the Clinton peace deal. Barak had earlier promised a public referendum on any final peace accord, but now says the February 6 prime ministerial election would act as the referendum. Analysts say the chances seem to be growing that Barak will sign a highly trumpeted accord with Clinton and Arafat in the US capital that will then be shot down by the Israeli public and/or Knesset a few weeks later. This would leave the Mideast ripe for a violent explosion since the Arab world would predictably blame Israel with gusto for the resultant peace process breakdown.

Israeli warplanes staged mock raids over parts of Lebanon today amid warnings that the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia may try to thwart the renewed peace process by attacking Israeli positions from south Lebanon. The mock raids come amid news reports that German-mediated clandestine negotiations to seek the release of four Israelis kidnapped by Hizbullah in October have collapsed. Meanwhile Palestinian shooting attacks continued overnight in several locations in the Gaza Strip and north of Jerusalem. The Jewish community of Psagot was hit once again with sniper fire. No injuries were reported. An Israeli motorist was wounded when his car was stoned last night near Hebron. Shots were fired at an army outpost near Ramallah, and a roadside bomb exploded near an Israeli bus at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip, causing some damage but no casualties.

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