Middle East Talks to Resume, Arafat Seals Statehood Delay
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat announced Saturday the start of a new last-ditch round of peace talks with Israel, effectively guaranteeing that he will not declare an independent state on September 13th as promised.
In a closed-session of the Palestine Liberation Organization's 129-member Central Council, Arafat said "major differences" remained with Israel that would have to be overcome in the next several weeks of intensive negotiations if the two sides were to reach a final peace accord.
Top Arafat aides added the new peace round would begin on Sunday, last five weeks and alternate between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Arafat, who arrived in Gaza on Saturday from New York where he held a meeting with US President Bill Clinton, faces the difficult, face-saving task of persuading the restive PLO to yet again postpone its promised declaration of statehood, this time scheduled for September 13th.
By announcing the start of a fresh peace drive, Arafat effectively confirmed widespread rumblings that there would be no unilateral statehood declaration.
Arafat does, however, still face the scrutiny of the PLO Central Council, which will begin to debate the statehood announcement Sunday.
Some council members have suggested the announcement could be put off until November 15th or until the end of the year, but stressed they would not accept a delay into the year 2001.
In New York, US President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed in a meeting Saturday to try to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward in the coming days and weeks, as time for an agreement is running out.
"(They) agreed to continue to be in touch in the coming days and weeks and to follow the efforts made to find the necessary basis to advance the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations," an official Israeli statement issued shortly after the meeting said.
Earlier, an Israeli official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Barak and Clinton were to outline a plan of intensive talks for the coming three critical weeks.
Clinton spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said, "We anticipate that (both sides) will continue to talk at various levels" in the next few weeks, which are seen as critical to a peace agreement.
At the Saturday meeting in New York, "Barak told Clinton that he wants to make a 'peace of a brave' and not of an ostrich," the Israeli official official who spoke on condition of anonymity told AFP.
"Clinton told Barak that the United Nations and the international community are backing his positions in the negotiations," the official added.
However, US frustration with the lack of progress achieved on the sidelines of the UN Millennium Summit this week had been clear late Friday.
"This whole Middle East thing is maddening," Clinton said, raising his arms in exasperation, as press photographers took a picture of him meeting Friday with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
While Clinton had declined to answer any further questions on the matter, senior US officials said they were "disappointed" with the lack of progress.
US and Israeli officials warn that time is running out because the Israeli parliament, which is threatening to overthrow Barak, is scheduled to reconvene in late October.
In addition, the US Congress, which would be expected to appropriate funds to help a peace agreement, is to adjourn ahead of the November 7 US presidential election - (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)