Barak, Arafat Differ On Moving Peace Process Ahead
Jerusalem (CNS) - In their first substantive talks late Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat got stuck on the issue of frozen interim agreements, failing to find common ground on how to move ahead.
Barak asked Arafat to consider new ideas on postponing some elements of the outstanding Wye River Memorandum, while jumping straight into "final status" talks on the major unresolved issues between Israel and the Palestinians.
The PA leader said he would give his reply within two weeks, but he made it clear through spokesmen what his answer would be: He expects Wye to be implemented fully and without delay.
Barak said he would accede to the Palestinians' wishes, but hinted he would be no more lenient than his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, in demanding that the PA meets its commitments as well.
"If it is decided not to adopt the variations we have brought up, both sides understand what this means," he said during a press conference after the two-hour meeting. "We will both have to carry the responsibility of the consequences."
Israel still has a list of unfulfilled Palestinian obligations, a foreign ministry official in Jerusalem told CNSNews.com Wednesday on condition of anonymity, "but neither Barak nor [Foreign Minister David] Levy is going to the barricades with it."
Unlike Netanyahu, who repeated his demand for "reciprocity" at every available opportunity, Barak would be "more polite, more diplomatic." The real differences between the two prime ministers would be those of style, not substance.
However, "everyone knows Israel didn't do our part either," the official added, saying Barak was aware of the expectation of the Americans and others that Israel make the first move in kickstarting Wye - probably by relinquishing more territory soon.
Maps were already in place, and the army was prepared to move when ordered.
The spokesman said Barak was particularly concerned about the fact that the two overdue pullbacks would leave about 15 Jewish settlements isolated and vulnerable to terror attacks.
If terrorists were to strike, either against the communities themselves, or against Israelis traveling along remote access roads, it would cause grave damage to the entire process and damage Arafat's position.
In effect, the ministry official said, Barak's suggestion was offering Arafat a way to avoid this scenario, especially at a time when Hamas, the militant Islamist group, had vowed to renew its terror campaign.
PA officials have focused on the outstanding Israeli obligations in the Wye agreement - two more troop withdrawals from disputed territory, prisoner releases, the establishment of a land corridor linking the Gaza Strip with West Bank areas under PA control, and permission to open a seaport in Gaza.
But the PA, too, has commitments in the Wye accord that Israel says remain unfulfilled.
These include full security cooperation, the confiscation of illegal weapons, extradition of terror suspects, a campaign to stamp out "incitement to violence and terror," and the outlawing of organizations "of a military, terrorist or violent character and their support structure."
Not widely reported is the fact that Wye also proposed an immediate - that is, late 1998 - start to "accelerated permanent status negotiations" even as the interim agreement was being carried out - in effect what Barak, like Netanyahu before him, is now calling for.
Barak and Arafat agreed Tuesday night that a working group would begin discussions Thursday on resuming the Wye process.
Signed last October after marathon talks at the Wye River Plantation in rural Maryland, the Wye agreement collapsed after Israel carried out the first of three scheduled troop withdrawals.
Netanyahu accused the PA of not carrying out its security obligations; the Palestinians accused Israel of freezing the process.