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Arafat meets Mubarak, will consult Arab ministers on U.S. peace proposals
Arafat's visit to Cairo followed a meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington. Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said Arafat's response to the U.S. proposals would follow the meeting with Arab foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, an Israeli envoy is en route to Washington to discuss the proposals.At stake is the Clinton administration's waning hope for peace in the Middle East.
Gilead Sher, chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, will visit the White House in an attempt to get clarification about Arafat's proclaimed willingness to accept U.S.-proposed parameters for continued peace talks.
The opinions of Mubarak and other Arab leaders could play a crucial role in whether peace negotiations resume, Palestinian sources said.
U.S. officials said they expect Sher will also be looking for "details" of concerns expressed by Arafat, but said it is not likely that Sher will meet with Clinton during this trip.
Israeli sources said the step does not mean that negotiations with the Palestinians will resume, but U.S. officials said Clinton and his Mideast peace team want to see "if it's possible to reconcile" the various reservations expressed by both sides to the proposed peace plan.
'The response the U.S. wanted'
One senior White House official who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity said the U.S. plan is to get each side to send somebody to Washington for separate talks with U.S. mediators. So Barak's decision to send Sher to Washington was "the response the U.S. wanted."
If things go well during talks with Sher, U.S. officials say they'd likely invite another Palestinian delegation to Washington for additional talks before deciding to convene a high-level "summit-like" meeting.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday: "What we're trying to do now is get the parameters accepted in a way where the reservations are reconcilable and, therefore, we know that both sides are in a position to negotiate seriously."
Palestinians prepared to talk
The decision to send Sher was made after Arafat conditionally accepted the U.S.-proposed parameters for future peace talks. (More on the U.S. peace proposals). Barak, who had been briefed by Clinton, called together his "peace cabinet" of ministers who have been involved in the peace process, and that group decided to send Sher to Washington.
Hasan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian representative to the United States, told CNN that Arafat had accepted in principle the U.S.-proposed parameters for future peace talks, but expressed his reservations. (More on the Palestinian concerns).
"We conveyed to President Clinton our acceptance in principle to the proposal ... with our own explanations and interpretations of those proposals in relation to all the issues," Rahman said.
Rahman said that if Barak is willing to engage in talks, based on what Arafat conveyed to Clinton, the Palestinians were prepared to begin 12 days of talks -- as early as Wednesday -- at any level.
Barak's ministers also decided to accept what it called Clinton's "triple mechanism" to reduce violence in the region and said it would appoint another Israeli representative to work on that proposal.
That mechanism, the ministers said, will deal with curbing terrorist attacks and reducing the violence. It gave no further details. The mechanism would involve an Israeli, a Palestinian and a U.S. official.
White House reacts cautiously
Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said Wednesday that Arafat's qualified acceptance of the U.S. proposals marked a "step forward" in the peace process, but that reservations on both sides must be addressed before any further talks can proceed.
White House officials cautioned that it was easy to oversimplify the situation, but added that Arafat now had a "better understanding" of the proposed framework for negotiations and "is open now to talking based on our ideas."
In the words of one U.S. official, Arafat's "acceptance, if you want to call it that, included many reservations and conditions, so it is our view that it is best for us not to try to characterize what he said. But it did crack the door in a way that could be promising."
A senior White House official said "The president believes real progress was made and now will get the prime minister's sense and see how to proceed from there."
Israelis want concrete statement
An Israeli official said Israel is waiting for a public statement from Arafat, accepting Clinton's proposals in principle before it agrees to further talks. Arafat, he said, may not be objecting to the proposals out of hand because he doesn't want to be seen as "the bad guy," but that does not mean he is planning to negotiate any further.
"We are waiting to learn how qualified this acceptance is," the official said. "The fear on the Israeli side is that Arafat's reservations are so qualified that their practical significance means we are going nowhere quick."
The official added that Barak is unlikely to show the Palestinians any maps or agree to any further concessions without hearing from Arafat that he is willing to compromise further on issues important to the Israelis, specifically regarding the question of refugees.
"It is a give and take," said the official. "We can be flexible but not in a vacuum. We have to know that on the core issues, there is new room to move."
Relative calm in West Bank, Gaza
The Palestinians and Israelis have broad disagreements over several issues, particularly over Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees or the descendants of those who fled when Israel became a state in 1948.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on Wednesday clarified Israel's position on the return of and possible compensation for Palestinian refugees.
"Palestinians will return ... to the state of Palestine," Ben-Ami said. "They will return ... once there is a deal.
"There will be an international commission that will raise the necessary funds" to compensate the refugees, he said. "Israel will be one of the donor countries."
And while Clinton pressed for an agreement, Ben-Ami said that violence in the region must first be curbed.
"If Israelis and Palestinians get the sense that there is a considerable reduction in the level of violence, then we can then proceed to explore further the possibilities of moving ahead in the peace," he said.
The two also disagree over an east Jerusalem site sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, the site was the focal point on September 28 for the beginning of the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Since that time, 328 Palestinians have died, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, along with 45 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs.
Relative calm characterized the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday, after sporadic violence was reported overnight.
But the Israeli army reported mortar bombs fired from Lebanon at a military post in the disputed Shebaa Farms area at the foot of the Golan Heights. The area was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The army said it returned fire with artillery and called the incident "severe," although there were no casualties or damage reported.
Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas are fighting to oust Israeli soldiers from Shebaa Farms.
Clinton-Arafat talks end without agreement
Palestinian National Authority
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