President Clinton's 11th-hour efforts to salvage the peace process may be too little, too late for many Israelis.
Following reports that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had conditionally accepted Clinton's proposals as a basis for discussion, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday agreed to send his chief peace negotiator to Washington to see if there is a basis for new talks with the Palestinians, even as Israeli officials downplayed the prospects for success.
Gilad Sher was due to meet American officials Thursday or Friday, according to news agencies. Palestinian negotiators would then come to Washington next week, but there will be no direct Israeli-Palestinian talks at this stage, according to the reports.
The sides are trying to hammer out a peace agreement before Clinton's term expires Jan. 20 and Barak faces elections Feb. 6.
The development came just a day after Barak announced a break in negotiations, saying Israel would concentrate instead on fighting a surging wave of Palestinian violence and terror.
Arafat reportedly said the Palestinians would agree to 12 days of talks with Israeli officials. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, however, said talks would resume only if the level of Palestinian violence markedly subsides.
In any case, Barak, Ben-Ami and U.S. officials were doubtful that an agreement could be reached quickly, with Ben-Ami saying it would take a "miracle."
The Palestinians attached so many qualifiers to their acceptance of Clinton's proposals -- including the insistence that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the "right" to return to homes they left in 1948 in what is now Israel -- that it is not clear what part of the plan Arafat in fact accepted.
Israeli officials questioned whether Arafat is merely courting world opinion, not wanting to appear as the one torpedoing Clinton's 11th-hour peace effort.
Tuesday's White House talks between Clinton and Arafat were overshadowed by the latest terrorist bombing in Israel and charges that the Palestinian Authority is encouraging the attacks.
At least 30 people were wounded when a car bomb exploded Monday night in the coastal city of Netanya. A day before, Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane -- the son of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the slain founder of the outlawed far-right Kach movement -- was killed along with his wife, Talia, when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on their car on a West Bank road.
The Netanya bombing came four days after two pipe bombs exploded on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv, wounding 13 people, one of them seriously.
A week before that, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near a roadside restaurant in the Jordan Valley in which three Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously.
Should Clinton fail to achieve a peace deal, Barak has been speaking increasingly about "separation" from the Palestinians.
During a phone conversation Monday, Barak told Clinton that Israel is now focusing on fighting terror, Israel Radio reported.
Speaking on Israel Army Radio, Barak accused the Palestinian leadership of supporting the terror attacks. "The recent terrorist attacks show that the Palestinians are backing actions against us," he said Tuesday. Senior Israeli security officials made a similar assessment, telling a Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority has released all jailed terrorists and is encouraging attacks against Israel.
Israeli media provided an even darker picture, reporting that Barak has instructed the Israel Defense Force (IDF) to prepare for a possible regional war. In a meeting with senior IDF officers, Barak said peace talks with the Palestinians could reach an impasse that causes the region to "deteriorate to a comprehensive war." Ben-Ami lamented that Arafat had taken so long to respond to Clinton's proposal that little time was left for negotiations.
Clinton's proposals call for far-reaching concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Most controversial for Israelis is a proposal to cede control of Jerusalem's Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Israel also would divide Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods coming under Palestinian rule. In exchange, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence -- some 4 million people in all -- be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel. Most Israelis consider this demand a veiled call for the elimination of the Jewish state.
In Monday night's attack in Netanya, the explosives had been planted in a car parked next to a bus station. Security officials were investigating whether Arafat's Fatah movement was behind the attack, which coincided with Fatah Day commemorations in the territories.
If so, this would mark an intensification of Fatah's struggle against Israel, which until now has not included terrorist attacks inside Israel proper. Those attacks generally have been executed by Islamic fundamentalist groups, who ostensibly are Arafat's opposition.
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