Barak, Arafat Discuss Looming Talks Deadlines

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - As security forces in Israel went on heightened alert after Monday's pipe bomb attack, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly asked Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasser Arafat to accept delays in two approaching deadlines.

At a four-hour meeting held at an undisclosed location Monday night, Barak apparently told Arafat that Israel would not keep to the schedule either on the next withdrawal from disputed territory or on the reaching of a "framework agreement" on final-status issues.

The meeting came after Syrian-Israeli talks -- scheduled to resume Wednesday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia -- were postponed indefinitely. The Syrians reportedly are frustrated by Israel's unwillingness to commit to a Golan Heights pullout.

The cancellation of the Shepherdstown talks meant Barak would not be flying to the United States, and therefore, he chose to meet Arafat at home instead of holding a possible meeting with him and President Clinton in Washington.

Numerous media reports suggest Barak told Arafat that an area bordering Jerusalem would not be included in the next batch of territory to be ceded to the PA.

According to the reports, Barak also asked that the deadline for a framework agreement for final status talks be postponed from mid-February to mid-April. According to Israel Radio, both men later denied that they had discussed putting off the agreement, although other sources have claimed otherwise.

In a bilateral agreement signed last September, Israel agreed to complete a further troop redeployment from an additional 6.1 percent of the disputed West Bank by this Thursday.

But Barak's office insisted the agreement gives Israel the right to delay redeployments for up to three weeks.

Reports over the past two weeks indicated that Barak was considering giving up Arab neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem - currently under PA civilian control - as part of that handover. But his office refused to disclose to the contents of the transfer maps.

Repeated attempts to contact the PA were unsuccessful, but Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, was quoted as saying a delay was "unacceptable" and "counter to the agreements signed." Rudeineh also insisted that the areas around Jerusalem be handed over now.

"We still demand that these areas revert to full Palestinian sovereignty, in any new withdrawal," Rudeineh said.

Since the signing of last September's agreement, Israel has given the PA either full control or civilian-only control over 12 percent of the disputed West Bank.

It has also released some 400 Palestinian security prisoners - some serving sentences for murder; has opened a land corridor for Palestinians across sovereign Israeli territory; and has permitted construction to begin on a Palestinian seaport in Gaza.

Despite these moves, progress in talks toward reaching a final status agreement - or even a framework within which to discuss the remaining key issues - has been slow.

The talks ended abruptly again last week when Israel turned down a PA demand to allow the return of some 3.5 million Arabs it says are Palestinian refugees, or provide compensation.

The issues of refugees, water, Jerusalem, settlement and final borders are the complex issues that will have to be decided in any permanent agreement between Israel and the PA. That agreement is supposed to be finalized by September 13.

The Barak-Arafat meeting came on the heels of a terror attack in the northern Israeli city of Hadera on Monday morning. Twenty-five Israelis were hurt when a homemade pipe bomb placed between two benches exploded in the downtown area.

Police spokesman Moshe Nissan told no arrests had been made, but said the investigation was continuing to focus on Islamic fundamentalism.

Security, especially in public areas, has been heightened as increased terrorism is expected to greet any substantial movement in the peace process.