Mideast Peace Focus Swings Back to Palestinians

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

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are speeding up negotiations less than three weeks before the mid-February deadline for reaching a "framework" agreement, as talks between Jerusalem and Damascus seem to be petering out.

Israeli officials are scheduled to leave for Washington on Tuesday to begin talks with the administration regarding an Israeli-Syrian draft agreement. However, Syrian experts, who were to have visited Washington for similar discussions ahead of the Israelis, failed to arrive.

A third round of talks was to have resumed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia on January 19, but Damascus first demanded that Israel supply a written guarantee of its intent to vacate the entire Golan Heights as part of a treaty. Israel declined to issue such a commitment as a precondition to resuming talks.

Syria reportedly refused to send its experts to Washington this week because it did not want to enter discussions before the Israelis completed their talks.

Even as the Syrian-Israeli talks lose momentum, Israeli-PA negotiations are picking up speed. Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he decided on a number of steps to accelerate negotiations with the PA.

A statement from the Prime Minister's office said Barak had briefed the U.S. administration on his decision to "hold a series of meetings at various levels" with the PA in order to "speed up the negotiations."

Barak said he aimed to make progress concurrently on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks "without giving preference to either."

The statement also said Barak was considering canceling a weekend trip to Davos, Switzerland, where he was to have attended a World Economic Forum meeting, because scheduling arrangements meant he and President Clinton would not be there at the same time.

The PA had hoped a trilateral meeting between Clinton, Barak and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat could be held at the sidelines of the Davos gathering.

Some reports say Barak is reluctant to attend a three-way summit because he is concerned he will be pressured into making concessions. One quoted a PA official as saying the conference would likely offer Barak "business for peace." Israel would be offered economic cooperation from Arab states in exchange for concessions in the peace process.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who visited Washington with Arafat last week, told CNSNews.com the Clinton-Arafat meeting had been "very constructive."

He added that he hoped that the Americans would do everything they could to help the two sides reach the framework agreement by the mid-February deadline.

The framework agreement is a precursor to a "final status" arrangement due to be negotiated by September 2000. That final settlement is supposed to include a resolution to the dispute over Jerusalem, final borders between Israel and the Palestinian entity, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

A separate series of talks involves continuing implementation of a bilateral agreement signed in Egypt last September, involving transfer of territory, release of prisoners and security matters.

Erekat and head Israeli negotiator Oded Eran met yesterday to work on details of the next planned Israeli withdrawal from disputed West Bank territory, which the PA says is five days overdue.

Erekat said the meeting had been "intensive and serious" and that PA hoped to see the implementation of the troops redeployment "as soon as possible." Erekat said the meeting had been "intensive and serious" and that PA hoped to see the implementation of the troops redeployment "as soon as possible."

Eran told Israel Radio the withdrawal would take place, as agreed, within three weeks of January 20.