Middle East Crisis Headlines - 1/5/2000

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Middle East Crisis Headlines - 1/5/2000

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given a conditional "yes" to the US peace proposal, giving peace one last chance before President Clinton leaves office on January 20th. After Arafat`s surprise response, Israel`s cabinet reluctantly decided to send negotiator Gilead Sher to Washington to discuss the possibility of resuming peace talks with the Palestinians. It now seems certain that the parties will embark on an intensive round of peace talks aimed at reaching some kind of framework agreement before Clinton finishes his term. However, Israel says it will not resume negotiations until Arafat sharply curbs violence and terrorism. "Following President Clinton`s recent meeting with Arafat, we understand they agreed that a systematic struggle against violence will be waged in the coming days. In the wake of that, we will reconsider continuation of the negotiations," Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Israel Radio today. Ben Ami added that the Palestinians have wasted a lot of time and it would take a "miracle" to reach an agreement before Clinton leaves office. "It is almost beyond human capability to end the negotiations in this short period," he said.

Yasser Arafat is meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Cairo seeking support for the Palestinian position on the US peace plan. First, Arafat met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator in the peace process. Then he went into closed session at ArabLeague headquarters with nine foreign ministers. Arab League spokesman Taalat Hamid said the ministers, convening at the Palestinians` request, would focus on supporting the Palestinian position and determining how best to bring an end to three months of violence. Like Arafat, many Arab states have expressed deep reservations about a key concession in the US plan—surrendering the right of Palestinian refugees to return their homes in Israel, in exchange for Palestinian control of Moslem and Christian holy places in Jerusalem. For instance, Lebanon which is home to a large refugee population opposes and concessions on the refugees. Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, among those meeting with Arafat, described the "right of return" as "sacred." Furthermore, Arafat is under pressure from the estimated four million refugees in Arab countries. Omar Abbassi, 52, an electrician whose family comes from Jaffa, a town south of Tel Aviv, told the Associated Press: "I am with Arafat if he reaches a peaceful agreement with the Israelis, but I will stand against him if he turns his back on us."

Arafat`s surprise "acceptance" of the US plan has been widely interpreted in Israel as a way to avoid blame for the breakdown of the peace process. In effect, Arafat is turning down the US peace proposal. But by saying "yes" and agreeing to more talks, Arafat can simply stall until President Clinton runs out of time. Then there will be Israeli elections on February 6th which, along with the US transition of power, will put the peace process on hold. The peace process will be on the back burner, the Palestinian uprising will continue, but the Palestinians will have avoided the stigma of causing the collapse of negotiations. Furthermore, they can blame Israel for the failure of the talks, on grounds that it could not negotiate seriously because of the upcoming elections. This would, of course, cloud the truth—namely, that Arafat has not compromised one inch on maximal demands, such as the "right of return," which Israel can never accept. Even the most dovish Israelis understand that flooding this small country with millions of refugees would be tantamount to national suicide.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak is backing down from a plan to hand the Temple Mount over to the Palestinians, after bitter opposition across the political spectrum. Even though it is a key provision of the US plan which Barak conditionally accepted, he sent a letter to Israel`s chief rabbis saying he never agreed to relinquish the Mount. "I ... hereby state that Israel never conceded the Temple Mount to the Palestinians," Barak wrote to Israel`s two chief rabbis. "Israel intends to request clarifications from the United States with regard to the President`s ideas concerning the Temple Mount." Clinton`s plan calls for the Palestinians to have sovereignty over the mosques on the Mount while Israel would have sovereignty over what lies underground—namely, the archaeological remains of the Biblical Temples. However, the Palestinians are insisting on full sovereignty above and below ground, and they are even trying to limit Israeli control of the sacred Western Wall. They say that while Jews would be allowed to pray at the Western Wall, which was a retaining wall of the Temple complex and lines the mosque compound, Israel cannot claim sovereignty over an archaeological tunnel that runs from the Wall to the Via Dolorosa, the route tradition says Jesus took to his crucifixion.

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