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Clinton expects to hear from Arafat, Barak by Wednesday
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton expects to hear by Wednesday if Palestinian and Israeli leaders will accept his proposal for future peace negotiations on a Palestinian state, refugees and sovereignty over holy sites, a senior administration official said.
Clinton has set a Wednesday deadline to hear from both sides.
Israeli leaders have indicated they will accept the proposal if the Palestinians do. But Palestinian leaders, who met Tuesday, did not reach an agreement.
A Palestinian source told CNN discussions would continue Wednesday, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is likely to send a letter to President Clinton.
'It is still too early'
"It is still too early to give the final answer," said Nabil Abu-Rudeineh, a senior Palestinian adviser. "We are still in need of time and the need of some clarification of these ideas, and we are going to consult with the Arab countries around us concerning the holy sights and the main other issues."
Arafat, for his part, said some of the U.S. ideas, presented after five days of U.S.-hosted talks last week, "demand deep study, as some of the positions were much less than what was proposed at Camp David."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak , during an interview with Israel Channel 2 television, said "that if the other side agrees to accept the (ideas) as they are, then we too will need to accept them."
A senior U.S. adviser told CNN on Tuesday that if both sides accept Clinton's proposal, the president would invite both leaders to the White House for separate meetings as early as next week.
Only if those meetings occur will the White House consider a second Camp David-style summit, said the adviser, who is intimately involved in the peace process.
"We're not going to rush into a summit here. There are no risk-free summits, but we want to see a significant narrowing of differences on these key issues," the official said.
Agreement a first step: U.S. official
The adviser cautioned that, even if both sides agree to Clinton's proposal, it does not "mean we're close to an agreement."
"We have to agree on the foul lines: that will clarify and refine the many issues. But even then there is an enormous amount of blood and sweat to go."
The immediate goal, said the official, is to persuade both sides to view their disputes within the context of the Oslo accord and see compromises in light of political and security needs, rather than strictly religious ones.
At Camp David last July, disputes over Jerusalem hinged on religious needs, rather than political or security issues.
The Temple Mount, for example, became an issue of huge symbolic importance to Israelis, even though relatively few Jews visit or worship there.
The Israelis were also troubled by the Palestinian demand for the full return of tens of thousands of refugees troubled Israelis, the adviser said. To them, it suggested the Palestinians were not seeking a homeland, but a means to ensure the eventual demographic conquest of Israel.
The Clinton proposal, however, offers joint sovereignty of the Temple Mount, known to Palestinians as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary -- one of the holiest places in Islam. The president's proposal also includes a deal whereby refugees would not return to Israel but receive financial compensation.
"We've listened to both sides intently over the past 18 months, and both sides thought it would be useful for the president to articulate those parameters," the adviser said. "They encouraged us to do this."
Clinton steps down January 20, and his efforts at obtaining a peace settlement were acknowledged this week by Barak. He said that if Arafat agrees to Clinton's proposal, "we will not be able to refuse to engage in negotiations at such a dramatic time for President Clinton, who has invested 7 1/2 years" on a Mideast peace settlement.
White House sources, referring to Wednesday's deadline, told CNN it could be flexible provided both sides report progress in reaching an agreement.
Negotiations have been at a stalemate since the Camp David talks collapsed and were further undermined by nearly three months of violence in which at least 373 people have died. At least 321 of those killed were Palestinians, 39 were Israeli Jews and 13 were Israeli Arabs.
In addition to a peace agreement, Barak faces other pressures. A special election for his post is set for February 6 following his abrupt resignation on December 10. Barak hopes to forge a deal, and use the election as a referendum on the agreement.
In addition, Barak will meet with Jordan's King Abdullah over the proposal's terms, Israel Radio reported.
Jerusalem to become dual capital?
Both sides remain tight-lipped about what is on the table. But the package is said to contain far-reaching compromises on four key issues -- the status of Jerusalem, Israel's final borders, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
While the proposals are described as general guidelines, they are said to provide that Israel would have sovereignty over Israeli neighborhoods of Jerusalem while Palestinians would have sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods. The city could be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state.
The guidelines call for Israelis to have sovereignty over the Western Wall -- the sole remaining portion of the biblical temple -- at the bottom of the Temple Mount.
Another proposal was said to put 97 percent of the West Bank under Palestinian control. The Palestinians want to know what map is being used and what land is involved.
In addition, part of the proposal has the international community helping in the implementation of the agreement. The Palestinians have been pushing for the U.N. Security Council to get involved. The Israelis are said to be willing to go along.
Barak, asked if he would be seen as pushing for a peace deal because of the upcoming elections, said he would "never sign a deal that I did not believe would strengthen Israel in the long term."
Fresh violence, meanwhile, erupted in the West Bank following a recent lull in hostilities.
The Israeli army reported a fierce gun battle early Tuesday between Palestinians and Israeli troops near the West Bank city of Nablus.
No casualties have been reported, and no immediate word came from the Palestinians about the firefight.
On Tuesday, the Palestinian group Hamas, which opposes negotiations, claimed responsibility for last week's suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned West Bank cafe, wire services reported. Three Israeli soldiers were injured in the attack.
Fighting, talks loom over Bethlehem
Israel Defense Forces (in Hebrew)
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