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Israel, Palestine Fail To Agree On Land Swap Plan by Deadline

By Rebecca Trounson

It was a relatively rare public, and daylight, meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, intended to showcase goodwill and at least a modicum of progress in their peace negotiations, even as Israeli-Syrian talks remain stymied.

But Thursday’s summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at this crossing on the edge of Palestinian-ruled Gaza exhibited neither, ending in disagreement over the next Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.

The Palestinians quickly declared the dispute a crisis and angrily accused Israel of attempting to dictate terms of the land transfers and the talks. Israeli officials, including Barak, acknowledged the difficulties but said the discussions will continue, with negotiators scheduled to meet again Sunday.

“The talks with the Palestinians are going through a difficult patch marked by significant tensions and substantial differences,” Barak said in a speech to Labor Party activists in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, according to the Agence France-Presse news service. But he said the problems will be overcome.

Thursday’s midday meeting, which lasted a little more than two hours, was intended to push for progress toward reaching a Feb. 13 target on a framework for a final peace deal -- or at least to formally extend the deadline. The public summit followed three private, late-night meetings at secret locations between the two leaders in recent months.

But Barak’s spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, later acknowledged what increasingly has seemed inevitable: that the two sides would not reach the ambitious deadline for producing the detailed blueprint.

The Gaza talks also were meant to clear the way for Israel to transfer an additional six percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, the latest in a series of troop withdrawals from the occupied territory that were stipulated under an agreement reached last September. Barak’s security Cabinet announced the pullback on Wednesday.