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U.S. Envoy Returns from Mideast Without Hebron Peace Accord

By Rebecca Trounson
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM

After two weeks of intensive diplomacy aimed at forging an agreement on the pullout of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron, Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East peace envoy, left for Washington Monday - without an accord.

Ross, sent to the region by President Clinton to try to revitalize the faltering peace process, sought to put a positive face on his departure, telling reporters that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be reached "relatively soon." He said the two sides were making progress on the main sticking point, the long-delayed Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, the last major West Bank community to be turned over to Palestinian control.

"We made progress this week," Ross said. "I think there were hopes that we could finalize (an agreement) in some areas. That didn't materialize. It doesn't mean we can't press ahead and reach agreement as soon as possible."

Israeli and Palestinian officials stopped short of calling the situation a crisis, but said the discussions had reached at least a temporary impasse, raising concern that frustration about the lack of progress could lead once again to violence.

Ross was dispatched after Clinton convened an emergency White House summit aimed at jump-starting the peace process and ending outbreaks of violence such as the clashes last month that left more than 75 people dead and more than 1,000 injured in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Each side blamed the other for the latest delays.

"The Palestinians just decided to shift into neutral," said Moshe Fogel, spokesman for the Israeli negotiators. "It looks like we're all waiting for a political decision on Arafat's part."

Israeli officials have said they believe the Palestinian leader wants to delay the agreement until after the U.S. presidential election in hopes that a new administration - Democrat or Republican - will be willing to exert more pressure on Israel.

"These are tiny, minute differences that can be tied up in three minutes flat if the Palestinians wished to do so," said David Bar-Illan, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.