Top Israelis, Palestinians sitting down for talks Sunday
U.S.-brokered negotiations designed to restart peace process
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Web posted at: 6:20 p.m. EDT (2220 GMT)
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- For the first time in months, high-level Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will sit down face to face Sunday, trying to break an impasse that is threatening to derail the Middle East peace process.
But on the eve of the U.S.-brokered meeting in Tel Aviv, Palestinian officials were making it clear that they will not consider making any changes in a U.S. proposal calling for Israel to hand over an additional 13 percent of the land it controls in the West Bank.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has accepted the plan; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not, demanding additional conditions to insure Israeli security.
"We cannot accept anything less than the least that we have accepted in the American compromise," said Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath. "And I think that has to be made very clear to the Israelis."
The meeting is being held at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The Israeli delegation will be led by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, while the lead Palestinian negotiator will be Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israelis are expected to suggest changes in the U.S. plan. Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, says an agreement is very close -- if Palestinians can ally Israel's concerns about security and remove a portion of the Palestine Liberation Organization covenant calling for Israel's destruction.
"Let's make an arrangement where Israelis can be sure that [Palestinians] live up to all these agreements with regard to fighting terrorism, security and arms and the Palestinian covenant," Shoval said. "They'll be surprised how generous we can be."
The Israeli media speculated that Mordechai would propose setting up joint Palestinian-Israeli committees to discuss the various security issues. The committees would conclude their work within a week.
Israeli media also reported that the head of Israel's opposition Labor Party, Ehud Barak, met with Abbas and two other top Palestinian officials Friday, urging them to enter Sunday's meeting with an open mind.
Israel's point man in the talks, Mordechai, 54, is a retired general who has been prodding Netanyahu to seek a deal. He has warned that violence could erupt if an agreement isn't reached, but he has stopped short of fully embracing the U.S. proposal for a 13 percent pullback.
On the other side of the table, Abbas, 63, has been a dove in the PLO leadership since the 1970s. One of the architects of the 1993 Oslo accords that set up the Middle East peace process, Abbas has long been a contact for sympathetic Europeans and the Israeli left. Some Palestinian radicals consider him too conciliatory.
The Oslo accords expire next May, and there are fears that armed conflict could ensue if a final agreement isn't reached by then. Arafat already has said that if no agreement is reached, he will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.
"It's almost as if we know that there will be a war that will convene on a certain date, and [the United States] and other parties are doing much too little to prevent it," said Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a public educational foundation.
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