Barak Hints at Further Concessions to Palestinians in Attempt to Revive Talks
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak suggested Sunday he would consider less than full Israeli sovereignty over the key holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews, in a bid to keep alive hopes for a peace treaty with the Palestinians, reported The Associated Press.
In speeches and interviews, Barak also outlined a solution for sharing the disputed city that appeared to go beyond what Israel has offered in the past, said the agency.
Reaching out to the Palestinians, he reminded them of the benefits of a peace treaty, including the establishment of a widely recognized Palestinian state and a massive international aid package for Palestinian refugees.
As Barak spoke, the top Palestinian policy-making body decided to put off a declaration of statehood for at least two months, in a bid to give faltering peace talks a chance.
The decision, taken in Gaza City with Arafat in attendance, defused possible confrontation with Israel, which had threatened retaliation for a possible unilateral move, the AP said.
Peace talks have been stalled because of rival sovereignty claims to a 36-acre sacred compound in Jerusalem's Old City.
The Palestinians have insisted on full sovereignty over traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites. Israel has rejected the demand, but has said it was ready to hand over some parts of the eastern sector to Arafat.
Barak suggested Sunday that while he would not agree to Palestinian sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, he would not necessarily insist on formal Israeli rule there, either.
"Somehow, a formula should be found that would not contradict both statements," he said, referring to rival sovereignty claims.
Addressing American Jewish leaders, Barak outlined in greatest detail yet how he envisioned sharing east Jerusalem. Israel would annex three major West Bank settlements near the city, as well as 11 Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem after Israel occupied the sector in 1967.
Israel would seek "sovereignty over the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives with its large Jewish cemetery, the City of David archaeological site, and all other places that are important to us," Barak told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations on the last day of his weeklong New York visit, the AP noted.
He made no reference to seeking sovereignty over the Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem that are home to more than 200,000 Palestinians.
Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rdeineh turned down Barak's ideas, saying the Palestinians would not accept Israeli sovereignty over any part of east Jerusalem, added the agency.
However, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath confirmed for the first time Sunday that in his meeting with President Clinton last week, Arafat raised his own compromise proposal concerning the Haram al-Sharif mosque compound.
Arafat told Clinton he was ready to accept Islamic sovereignty by the countries of the Jerusalem Committee, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, over the site, with the Palestinians receiving actual jurisdiction.
"The first reaction of President Clinton was not encouraging," Shaath said.
Palestinian officials said last week that lower-level negotiations were to resume Sunday. However, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was told by his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, that talks would not begin until after Barak's return to Israel on Monday, according to the agency - Albawaba.com
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