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Envoy Returns Home as Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Falter

By Lee Hockstader

For the second time in a month, President Clinton’s special Middle East envoy said Monday he is returning home having failed to reinvigorate faltering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The departure of the envoy, Dennis Ross, marked a new low point in increasingly ragged ties between the two sides, which have been deadlocked on territorial and procedural points since early this month. Having missed a Feb. 13 deadline for setting a broad plan to end their half-century conflict, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have traded recriminations in recent weeks. And Monday, Ross acknowledged he has been unable to replenish the dwindling stock of trust between them.

“I am going back to Washington to consult with the president and the secretary (of state),” he said after a week of talks with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister. “And we will decide on what the best next step will be to ensure that this process of overcoming the difficulties actually succeeds.”

The apparent inertia on the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, which many had hoped would achieve a major breakthrough this year, stood in contrast to a flurry of reports from the Israeli-Syrian peace front.

Talks between Syria and Israel also have been frozen for weeks, despite frequent reports of behind-the-scenes attempts to revive them. But on Sunday, in a clear effort to break the impasse, Barak conceded a point that Syria has insisted on since 1996 -- that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had made a commitment to return the Golan Heights if Israel’s security conditions were met.

Going even further, Barak said that three other former Israeli prime ministers -- Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir -- recognized the legitimacy of Syria’s claim to land it held on the Golan until June 1967, when Israel captured the strategically important heights.