Israeli, Palestinian negotiators fail to reach agreement

WASHINGTON - Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed Saturday to overcome their differences on Jerusalem and other tough issues, setting back President Clinton's drive for a peace accord before leaving office.

But Clinton did not give up. At a half-hour meeting in the White House Cabinet room, the president offered ideas on how to bridge the differences between the two sides. Clinton said he expected replies by midweek.

''How far we go, how fast we go, is up to the parties,'' White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said as five days of inconclusive talks ended. There was no agreement on a summit, another round of negotiations, or sending a U.S. envoy to the region.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said in an interview that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may decide by Wednesday to go to Washington for separate talks with Clinton.

''It's premature to talk of a summit until we have a sense there is real progress,'' Crowley said after the two delegations departed the White House where they met for 45 minutes with U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.

''There is an opportunity to make progress; whether progress happens or not is up to the parties,'' Crowley said.

Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, and Ben-Ami skirted the details of their differences, and the White House did not disclose the specifics of the suggestions Clinton had made to them.

Crowley described them as ''not an American plan'' but rather ''some suggestions to the parties based on what we heard from them'' at the Camp David summit last July and since then.

The top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again for about an hour at a nearby hotel after their White House meeting, but both sides said afterward that no breakthroughs were made.

Arafat, speaking in Jordan, made at least one sticking point clear. He said his negotiators would not make concessions on the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Taking the view Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes when Israel was established 52 years ago, Arafat is demanding recognition of a ''right to return'' for millions of Palestinians, including descendants.

Israel has rejected the demand as potentially altering the Jewish character of the state.

In the negotiations at Bolling Air Force Base in southeast Washington, Israel apparently offered concessions on East Jerusalem, which Arafat seeks as the capital of a Palestinian state that Barak has already conceded.

Ben-Ami told American Jewish leaders in a telephone report Friday that the Temple Mount, revered by observant Jews as the site of the ancient Temple, was on the negotiating table.

''For all practical purposes, the Arabs are in control of the Haram,'' Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, quoted Ben-Ami as saying. Haram as-Sharif, the Al-Aqsa mosque on the site, is holy to Muslims.

Ben-Ami said Israel was determined to hold on to ''Jewish Jerusalem,'' an indication the dovish Barak was prepared to relinquish the predominantly Palestinian area of the city.

Emerging from the White House talks, Erekat said gaps remained on Jerusalem, security, refugees and borders.

''We're exerting maximum effort,'' he said.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian delegation, said Friday that Israel had backtracked on Jerusalem. ''On some of the ideas they had proposed concerning Jerusalem, the Israelis stepped back, concerning Haram,''

''We are facing a crisis. We are not close on any of the issues,'' he said.

Erekat, on Saturday, said ''we would like to see an agreement during President Clinton's presidency,'' However, he said if the Arab-Israeli conflict was still unsolved when Clinton left office Jan. 20 the next U.S. president - George W. Bush - would deal with it, as well.

Speaking separately in the White House driveway, Ben-Ami said ''inevitably differences remain.''

In a later interview, the Israeli minister dismissed any idea of a crisis as ''not serious.''

''What we are trying to do is to fine-tune and see where we can settle differences,'' he said. ''We need to persist, and we have a timetable and we need to see whether we are able, within such a timetable, of settling our differences.''


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