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Arafat Waits For Signs of Barak’s Position on Mideast Peace Accords

By Tracy Wilkinson

Like almost everyone else in the Middle East, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is waiting eagerly -- and somewhat apprehensively -- to see what the new prime minister of Israel will do when it comes to making peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

In an interview, Arafat praised his new negotiating partner, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, for showing “real determination” to move ahead with peace.

Barak’s victory May 17 over conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awakened high hopes among Israelis and Palestinians. But the Palestinians are worried that the incoming Israeli leader will sideline the search for a settlement with them to pursue a solution to long-standing conflicts with Syria and Lebanon.

Arafat, speaking in his headquarters, sought to downplay these concerns.

“We are for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East -- the Syrian track, the Lebanese track and the Palestinian track,” he said, suggesting that the three negotiations could complement each other.

After three years dominated by stalemate, Israel and the Palestinians have before them some of the most nettlesome, unresolved issues that will go into a final settlement: borders between the two entities; the status of Jerusalem, a holy city to both sides; water rights in this dry desert land; and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

With Lebanon and Syria, meanwhile, Barak appears especially keen to renew talks and reach an agreement that would pacify Israel’s last active war front. He has pledged to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within a year, and will need an agreement with Syria, Lebanon’s master, to do so. He also must address the fate of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Arafat emphasized the notion of a “comprehensive peace” that encompasses all the parties. But given a history of enmity between the Palestinians and Syrians, this does not seem easily achievable.

The Palestinians are especially disturbed by persistent reports in Israeli media suggesting Barak will skip the next phases of last fall’s Wye River agreement to move directly to so-called final status talks.

The Wye agreement provided for Israel to hand over to Palestinian control another 13 percent of the West Bank. In exchange, the Palestinians would fulfill a range of security measures. Israel had only begun to withdraw its troops from the designated areas when Netanyahu suspended the agreement, focusing instead on last month’s elections and accusing the Palestinians of failing to hold up their end of the bargain.

It had been widely assumed that Barak would quickly revive the Wye agreement.