Barak warns Palestinians he has alternative plans if peace talks fail

JERUSALEM (AP) - A top Israeli negotiator said Thursday that his country wants to build off the gains made at U.S.-sponsored peace talks, a reversal after the government had declared that all breakthroughs from the talks were now ''null and void.''

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the acting foreign minister, suggested that Israel was especially interested in setting down in writing the taboo-breaking proposals the sides arrived at during talks in Camp David, Md. on sharing the walled Old City of Jerusalem, and its holy sites.

Describing talks with U.S. mediator Dennis Ross aimed at reconvening a summit, Ben Ami said Israel's ''aspiration is to try and produce a collective paper to express what the parties understand is the product of Camp David on some core issues.''

Palestinian officials have also said they want to reconvene a summit on the basis of Camp David, but until now, no side has spoken of setting the proposals down on paper. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had even refused to allow minutes to be taken at meetings he attended during the 15-day summit in the Maryland hills.

It was a turnabout from Barak's declaration of all Camp David proposals as ''null and void'' upon his return here after the summit's collapse last month.

At the time, Barak, who had made deep concessions on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees at the summit, saw the summit as played out, and was seeking to entice hard-line parties back into his disintegrating government.

Barak wants a deal by the time parliament reconvenes in October, when the opposition will step up its efforts to topple his government, and on Thursday he warned the Palestinians he would abandon peace efforts and invite hard-liners into his government if there is no deal by then.

Ben Ami made his comments returning from Egypt, where he had a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

''We must work on the basis of what was created at Camp David, and not to return to square one,'' Ben-Ami said he told the Egyptians.

Israel wants the Egyptians to lead an Arab initiative that would reassure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of Arab backing on any compromise he makes on Jerusalem.

Ben Ami said Jerusalem was one of the ''main issues'' in his meetings Thursday with the Egyptians.

At Camp David, Israel agreed to extend limited sovereignty to the Palestinians in some parts of the city - but did not go far enough for Arafat, who seeks all of traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, including the walled Old City.

Barak offered the Palestinians religious sovereignty on Haram as-Sharif, the mosque compound built on the remnants of the holy Jewish temple destroyed 2,000 years ago, and abutting the Western Wall - the holiest site in Judaism - but insisted on overall sovereignty.

Haram as-Sharif is the third-holiest site in Islam, and were Arafat to accept anything less than total sovereignty over the site, he would be shunned throughout much of the Muslim world.

Ben Ami said he told his Egyptian hosts that, ''just as we recognize and are sensitive to the practical and symbolic expressions of the relation of Islam to Jewish places in Jerusalem, to the same measure and with special passion we are sensitive to defend the values, the symbols, the principles of Judaism in the holy city.''

Such language - placing the importance of the Old City to Muslims on equal footing with its holiness to Jews - is unprecedented for so senior an Israeli official and could signal an offer to allow some form of sovereignty to the Palestinians in the Old City.

Channel Two television, citing unidentified officials, said Ben Ami told the Egyptians Israel would extend sovereignty to the Palestinians in some ''buildings'' in the Old City - it was not clear where. That would go beyond anything Israel offered at Camp David.


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