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Arafat hopes for peace deal before Clinton departs
Arab ministers: No concessions on right of Palestinian return
GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said Thursday after meeting with Arab League foreign ministers that he hopes Israelis and Palestinians can reach a peace agreement before U.S. President Bill Clinton leaves office on January 20.
"We hope so, and we hope before Clinton finishes his term as Clinton has promised to exert all of his efforts," Arafat said when he returned to his headquarters in Gaza after his meetings in Cairo.
In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers made clear that they would support no concessions on the right of Palestinian refugees -- and their descendants -- who fled or were forced to flee when Israel was founded in 1948, to return to lands in the Jewish state.
"The committee expressed unanimously its backing, support for the Palestinian position," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa following the meeting, who said that the right of return was of concern to all Arabs, and not just Palestinians.
"I would like to point out that Lebanon has totally rejected the idea of resettling the Palestinian refugees (permanently) and insisted on the right of the Palestinians to return," Moussa said. "We believe that this is a sacred right."
Arafat had returned to the Middle East early Thursday after meeting with Clinton in Washington to discuss his reservations about Clinton's proposals to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.
The Israeli government accepted the Clinton proposals last week and agreed to fresh negotiations, provided the Palestinians also accepted them. Arafat gave a conditional acceptance to the proposals on Wednesday before leaving Washington for the Arab leadership meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak dispatched top adviser Gilead Sher to Washington to discuss concerns about the proposals with U.S. officials, and to discuss ways to curb violence in the region.
Sher was expected to arrive in Washington on Thursday, but was not expected to meet with Clinton.
Some 3.7 million Palestinians -- refugees and their descendants -- are registered in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and in the West Bank and Gaza, according to UNRWA, the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency. Of that number, 2.3 million live in those three countries. The Palestinians have demanded that the refugees be allowed to return to their homes, but the Israelis have rejected that idea, saying it would permanently alter the nature of their country.
The latest round of fighting in the 52-year-old conflict began on September 28. To date, 328 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, along with 45 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
When both sides are satisfied with the Clinton proposals -- or not, as the case may be -- Clinton will decide whether to call the two leaders together for a summit and a final push to reach a peace agreement before his eight-year term in office comes to an end on January 20.
Palestinian Council member Hanan Ashrawi told CNN that the short timeframe made any kind of agreement unrealistic.
"It will take quite a large stretch of the imagination to expect an agreement, a resolution of a decades-long conflict, in a few days, when for eight years President Clinton was unable to bring about a resolution," she said. "I don't think under duress and an artificially imposed deadline and the pressure of time, you're going to come up with an agreement that will withstand the test of time and test of legitimacy."
Israelis, too, were skeptical that an agreement could be reached before President-elect George W. Bush takes office -- or even before Barak faces a re-election vote on February 6.
"It is beyond human power to complete the negotiations in such a short time," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said on Israel radio.
CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna and Correspondent Matthew Chance contributed to this report.
Clinton-Arafat talks end without agreement
Palestinian National Authority
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