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Jerrold Kessel on Mideast peace snags

Jerrold Kessel
Jerrold Kessel  

CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel is reporting in Jerusalem on the status of Mideast peace efforts.

Q: Is U.S. envoy Dennis Ross's trip to the Mideast canceled altogether?

KESSEL: The current mission of Dennis Ross, the top U.S. mediator, is on hold and possibly could not take place at all, although all sides are saying his trip is only postponed for a few days.

The indications are, at the very best, President Clinton has decided to wait and see if the Israelis and Palestinians can try in direct talks to work out ways to ease the violence or commit themselves to lessen the violence that has ravaged their relationship for the past three months.

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Whether this means that Mr. Clinton's last-ditch effort . is completely scuttled is not quite clear. As every day and perhaps every hour goes by, a last-minute breakthrough of any sort, even of some kind of tentative agreement, seems less likely.

There are even doubts about whether President Clinton may go beyond his proposals, in which he laid out where he thinks the two sides should head, and make some kind of diplomatic statement on the state of the peace process as a legacy for the new administration.

Q: Any explanation given as to what may have prompted Ross's sudden postponement?

KESSEL: It is mired in uncertainty. There is the on-the-face reason -- that Ross was supposed to come Wednesday, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has gone to Morocco to meet with Arab counterparts. That's a real practical reason, but it doesn't explain why Ross wouldn't be coming Thursday when Arafat is expected to return.

The statements made by American officials at the embassy in Tel Aviv is that the president wanted to see if the direct negotiations, which are going on, could succeed in moving toward lessening the violence before Ross sets out.

That can be taken at face value, but I think beyond that it could be that the Palestinians just aren't happy about his misson, because they suspect all that will come out of it, if anything, is that Mr. Clinton will try to twist their arms and (get them) to agree that his proposal becomes the legacy. They don't want that.

Q: Does it seem as if the two sides are interested in reaching a deal before Clinton leaves office?

KESSEL: It's been an interesting last few weeks. Barak, in a sense, you would have thought wanted the deal, but now it looks as if getting a deal would not help him when Israelis go to the polls on February 6. And Arafat doesn't seem as if he's that interested.

A few months ago, everybody had been saying all three parties - Barak, Clinton and Arafat - had a great interest in reaching it. As the calendar has wound its way inexorably down to January 20, it seems more and more as if only Mr. Clinton really wants the deal.

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