Barak Agrees to Marathon Peace Talks with Palestinians Leaders Wouldn't Join Negotiations until Later

Article excerpt

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his top ministers accepted Palestinian proposals yesterday to hold marathon peace negotiations in Egypt in an effort to reach a deal before Israel's Feb. 6 elections.

The talks, expected to start today, could last up to 10 days, and Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may join the negotiations later, each side said. Israel said elder statesman Shimon Peres would be guiding the talks from the side and may also join.

Arafat made the proposal earlier this week. On Friday, he reaffirmed the offer in a telephone call to President Clinton -- whose proposals will be at the center of talks. Clinton welcomed the idea and told Barak of his support in a separate call, former White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Officials said the Israeli team will be headed by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and include Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, backed by Yossi Sarid, a legislator who heads the dovish Meretz party.

Barak, who badly trails behind hawkish challenger Ariel Sharon, needs a deal with Palestinians to boost his electoral chances. In recent days, Barak has expressed pessimism and postponed a decision on Arafat's offer because of the killing of a Jewish teenager in the West Bank.

But Israeli reports and Palestinian officials said peace contacts, including telephone conversations between Barak and Arafat, were continuing behind the scenes in recent days.

Palestinian negotiators had proposed holding talks between senior negotiators at some isolated place either in Cairo or near it.

The Palestinians intend to send the same delegation they had at the last high-level talks hosted by Clinton at Camp David. But Arafat and Barak would be absent, possibly joining at the last stage, Palestinian negotiators said.

"We hope that the Israelis will come with positive positions. We are ready to start marathon talks and we are ready to sit together for the coming week or 10 days in order to reach a comprehensive agreement," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said.

The current talks focus on Clinton's peace proposals, which call for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, 95 percent of the West Bank and Arab areas of Jerusalem. Israel and the Palestinians have accepted the plan in principle, but have added significant reservations. …


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