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Israel, Palestine Talks Stall Over Dispute Over Prisoners

By Ann LoLordo
THE BALTIMORE SUN -- JERUSALEM

Israelis and Palestinians broke off talks Wednesday, leaving an apparent deadlock in negotiations over a new deal to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.

Although a draft settlement agreement had been typed and titled, the discussions were stalled over a dispute on the number of Palestinian political prisoners Israel was willing to release as part of the deal and a new timetable for a final round of talks to conclude the historic experience in peace-making.

The dispute threatened to scuttle plans to sign a new addendum to the Wye River peace agreement at a special ceremony in Cairo, Egypt, late Thursday, presided over by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Albright, who was to arrive in Cairo Thursday, planned her Mideast trip to coincide with the resumption of the U.S.-brokered Wye peace deal.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat left the Netherlands early Wednesday to return to the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s security cabinet met late Wednesday night to discuss the status of the talks.

Without a new agreement, Barak said he would implement the Wye deal as written. That would mean any changes and improvements negotiated in the past month would be forfeited, according to a member of the Israeli negotiating team who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We start almost everything from zero,” he said.

The negotiator complained that the Palestinians had taken “an impossible deadlock position.” Barak wants the deal finished before both sides meet Albright, rather than getting her engaged in the last-minute negotiations. He has said previously that he wants Washington to play a lesser role in the peace talks.

The Wye agreement signed last fall requires Israel to give up all or part of its control over more West Bank land, release 650 Palestinian prisoners, approve the construction of a Gaza port and permit Palestinians to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- commitments first outlined in the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

The Palestinian obligations included fighting terrorism, reducing the size of its police force and confiscating illegal weapons.

Shortly after Barak took office, he proposed a new timetable for the resumption of final status talks to an improved Wye agreement -- coming closer to the Palestinian definition of the types of prisoners who would be released and possibly giving up more land. The two sides have said for days that they were on the verge of signing a deal.

They worked into the early morning hours Wednesday to resolve their differences on two issues -- the release of the Palestinian security prisoners and the timetable for the final status talks that will settle the thorniest problems -- such as the future boundaries of a Palestinian-controlled territory, the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

But late Wednesday Israel said it had gone as far as it could go, saying it had not received “satisfactory answers” from the Palestinians on the outstanding issues, the Israeli participant in the talks said.

The prime minister’s office issued this statement shortly before 3 p.m.

“From the Israeli government’s perspective, the negotiations have concluded. If it is not announced otherwise by this evening’s Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will conclude that the Palestinians are interested in implementing the Wye Agreement as written, and will act accordingly.”

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking to reporters at the King David Hotel, said he put forth proposals to bridge the gaps.

“We have shown determination, both of us, to pursue a line to solve (all the issues) through the civilized mechanics of negotiation,” Erekat said.

Despite Wednesday’s snag, the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations was much improved over those conducted during the Netanyahu ’76 years. Both sides said the talks were conducted in a spirit of cooperation and respect, a marked difference from the tension that prevailed during Netanyahu’s administration.

“I think it’s quite clear that this government’s agenda politically is different from the previous one and some of the decisions taken by the previous government were not satisfactory in the eyes of this government,” said the Israeli participant.