Snag stalls Mideast interim peace deal signing
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Web posted at: 12:13 p.m. EDT (1613 GMT)
WYE MILLS, Maryland (CNN) -- An official announcement of an interim peace agreement for the Middle East and the document's expected signing were on hold at midday Friday, as U.S. and Israeli negotiators tried to resolve a last-minute snag.
Early Friday, sources told CNN that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had agreed to an interim peace accord, and that the final draft of the document was hours away from being finished. The sources said the document would be signed at the White House on Friday.
But a demand from Israel that the United States release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and allow Pollard to return to Israel this weekend with Netanyahu put the events at Wye Mills on hold.
Pollard was apprehended by U.S. officials in the mid-1980s, and convicted in 1987 on treason and espionage charges for giving U.S. intelligence information to the Israelies.
As of late-morning Friday, the status of Pollard's possible release was unclear.
Sources told CNN Friday that U.S. President Bill Clinton had agreed to Pollard's release in principle, and that the release could come sometime this weekend.
But shortly before 11 a.m. EDT, a senior Clinton administration official said there was no deal to release Pollard.
"We're hoping and praying that President Clinton will do the right thing," Pollard's wife, Esther Pollard, told CNN.
The dispute left in doubt a planned White House signing ceremony for the so-called Wye River Memorandum, originally expected to be held about noon in the East Room of the White House.
"We have hit a snag," one senior administration official said. "We are working very hard to unravel the problem."
No one disputes that there is a security agreement to put the Middle East peace process back on track, but everything was on hold until Clinton and Netanyahu worked out their differences over the possible release of Pollard.
Members of the Palestinian delegation waiting to sign the agreement said Friday they were concerned that it could be scuttled over an attempt by Israel to "blackmail the United States" on an unrelated issue.
"We're here waiting, either to sign, or to leave if the Israelis leave," Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Arafat, told CNN.
U.S. officials say they still expect the interim peace agreement to be signed Friday.
Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat were up all night working out final details of the interim peace agreement.
While Clinton and Netanyahu worked on their issues, Arafat was polishing up his formal remarks for the anticipated signing ceremony, CNN's Andrea Koppel reported.
Once the memorandum is signed, officials say the final-status talks will begin immediately. Those talks will center on such contentious issues as the status of Jerusalem and the borders for a possible Palestinian state.
The final status talks must be completed by May 4, 1999, when the Oslo accords expire.
The agreement reached Friday includes a concrete security plan designed to curb violence in the region -- from both Palestinian and Jewish extremists.
Other issues in the deal include:
The document also states that unilateral actions -- such as the building of settlements, housing demolitions and a possible declaration of a Palestinian state by Arafat -- should not occur.
U.S. officials say Clinton invested an enormous amount of personal time trying to bring the two sides to closure on the deal.
The idea, according to the Clinton administration, was to settle these outstanding issues in order to make it possible to speed up final-status talks.
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