On the eve of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's expected arrival in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians exchanged sharp words that could bode ill for the latest US efforts to revive the flagging peace process, reported the Associated Press.
The agency quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as repeating accusations Sunday that the Palestinians were dragging their feet, and said he had instructed his negotiators to refrain for now from discussing what may be the most explosive issue between the two sides: the status of Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat retorted angrily that the city belongs on the agenda of so-called final status talks, which are meant to resolve crucial disputes including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians consider as their capital, said the AP.
“The final status issues include Jerusalem, and whoever doesn't like it can go drink from the sea,” Arafat told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state.”
Adding to the tensions, far-right Jewish settlers have been using increasingly inflammatory rhetoric in recent days to try to forestall the uprooting of settlements in the West Bank as part of any peace pact with the Palestinians. Some settlers have accused Barak of treason and betrayal.
Security surrounding Barak has been beefed up as a result of threats, Israeli media said, and one alarmed cabinet member, Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, on Sunday likened the climate to that preceding the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing nationalist opposed to territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Barak himself told his ministers that he believed that settlers understand that “pivotal historical processes can't be stopped with acts of violence.”
Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson met separately with Arafat and Barak on Sunday and offered to host another round of negotiations in Stockholm.
The two sides were holding talks in the Swedish capital until last month, when Barak summoned his negotiators home after a firebombing attack in the West Bank town of Jericho that critically injured an Israeli toddler.
The teams have since met again at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. Arafat said after meeting Persson that he hoped talks could return to Stockholm, though Barak was noncommittal.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army lifted a ban Sunday on Israelis and foreign nationals entering the Palestinian-controlled parts of Hebron. That ended a ban imposed across the West Bank after the Jericho firebomb attack.
In Jerusalem, Barak met with his government ministers and accused the Palestinians of causing “backward progress” in the peace talks by engaging in “strange” behavior, a Cabinet statement said.
“The prime minister emphasized that the Palestinians are foot-dragging,” the statement added. Senior Arafat adviser Nabil Abourdeineh accused Israel of the same thing.
The AP said Barak also characterized talks with the Palestinians as “still in the initial phase” and said because of that, he had told his negotiators “not to hold discussions at this point on Jerusalem.” Israel insists that the city will never be divided.
Albright's schedule was still being finalized, but her arrival was tentatively set for Monday afternoon or evening, with separate meetings with Barak and Arafat expected to begin that evening or the following day.
Palestinians said time was growing short to meet a mid-September deadline for a peace accord, and Abourdeineh urged the Clinton administration to pressure Barak.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met Sunday to discuss Palestinian demands to release some of the 1,600 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel for anti-Israeli activity, according to the agency.
In Cairo, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria and six Gulf nations held talks to discuss the Middle East peace process, as well as international sanctions on Iraq.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa was quoted by the AP as hailing Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon last month, but said the Arab nations backed Syria's demand for a return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.
Ministers from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait are also attending the two-day meeting - members of the Damascus Declaration security and economic pact reached with Syria and Egypt in 1991, said the AP – Albawaba.com
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