Dropping demand for international inquiry, Arafat agrees to new summit

Saturday, October 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel and the Palestinians agreed on Saturday to try to negotiate a truce at a summit in Egypt, each side dropping preconditions that had threatened to scuttle President Clinton's marathon efforts to bring them together.

However, Monday's gathering was not expected to lead to a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The deadly clashes of the past two weeks have sharply eroded trust. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have said that while they are not formally abandoning peace efforts, they would find it difficult to return to the negotiations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will be the host at the summit in the resort of Sharm el Sheik. The participants will be Clinton, Barak and Arafat as well as representatives of the United Nations and the European Union, according to Palestinian officials.

Clinton welcomed the agreement of Barak and Arafat to attend the summit, but cautioned that there was still much to be overcome.

``We should be under no illusions,'' Clinton said in Washington. ``The good news is the parties have agreed to meet and the situation appears to be calmer. But the path ahead is difficult. After the terrible events of the past few days, the situation is still quite tense.''

The violence, which has so far killed nearly 100 _ most of them Palestinians _ escalated dangerously on Thursday when a Palestinian mob beat two lost reserves soldiers to death, and Israel retaliated by rocketing Palestinian command targets.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has been in the region for a week brokering an end to the bloodshed, said the sides dropped demands that certain conditions be met before a meeting.

``There were no preconditions. There were suggestions,'' Annan told CNN before flying to Sharm el Sheik to consult with Egyptian leaders.

Arafat met secretly with Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik on Saturday, Egyptian officials said. Palestinian officials said Arafat had not left Gaza City.

Each side was quick to name its ``suggestions.''

Nabil Shaath, a senior Arafat aide, said the Palestinians expected an Israeli retreat from the edge of Palestinian-controlled towns, and the loosening of a closure that would allow medicine and food into the Palestinian areas. He said the Palestinians would ``watch those developments on the ground'' in the next two days.

The Palestinians in the past sought a promise that an international commission of inquiry into the violence of the past two weeks be established. However, it appeared they settled for a pledge that their demand will be discussed at the summit. Shaath said Israel agreed to talk about the issue in Sharm el Sheik.

A short statement from Barak's office did not refer to an inquiry, but Clinton said the sides would discuss ``a fact-finding mechanism concerning how this began and how it can be prevented from occurring again and to find a way back to dialogue and negotiations.''

The phrase, ``fact-finding mechanism,'' could accommodate Barak's adamant refusal to allow any country other than the United States to lead the inquiry.

Barak's office said it expected the Palestinians to re-arrest dozens of Islamic militants released from Palestinian jails _ but called that a ``necessary step,'' instead of a condition, and no deadline was set. Similarly, Palestinian spokesmen backed away from calling their expectations that Israel would reopen borders and roll back tanks ``conditions.''

In Nablus, Palestinian security officials were moving to re-jail Islamic militants. Security officials said they had visited 14 homes, looking for prisoners released just days earlier. The wife of one prominent member of Hamas, the largest militant group, confirmed that. She said her husband, Yusef Ragji, had fled before the police arrived.

Barak's office said the summit would not treat the substantive peace issues that have been all but waylaid by the violence, which has killed nearly 100 _ most of them Palestinian. Instead, the summit would formalize a cease-fire.

Barak's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said Israel expected the summit to offer a solid way out of the violence and back to peace talks. ``We are not prepared to navigate into a tunnel without an exit,'' he told Israel radio.

Since the Paris summit, the situation has exploded into warlike conflict.

In the volatile West Bank town of Hebron on Saturday, about 7,000 mourners buried a man shot to death during clashes with Israeli troops the day before.

The body was covered by a Palestinian flag, and borne by uniformed Palestinian police. Other gunmen fired into the air. ``Revenge, revenge,'' they chanted, and ``Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle.''

The clashes were triggered by a Sept. 28 visit of Israel's hardline opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, to a Jerusalem shrine holy to Jews and Muslims.

Barak, meanwhile, is fighting an increasingly difficult battle for political survival. The Israeli parliament reconvenes in two weeks, and the prime minister now only has the support of 30 of 120 legislators. Israelis have been badly shaken by the violence and a new poll indicated that if elections were held today, Barak would take a beating.

As a result, the Israeli leader has invited Sharon's Likud party to form an emergency coalition, a step seen by the Palestinians as a signal that Barak has already abandoned peace talks.

However, Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Cabinet minister, said an alliance with Sharon might only be temporary. If Arafat returns to negotiations in good faith, ``then I think it will be difficult to stick ... with the national unity government,'' Melchior said.