Israeli-Palestinian talks fail to resolve dispute

EREZ CHECKPOINT, Gaza Strip (AP) — At a dusty border checkpoint surrounded by fences and watchtowers, Israelis and Palestinians tried Sunday to rescue a peace effort bloodied by gun battles.
But they broke for the night without coming to an agreement on their main obstacle: whether to “adjust” the agreements signed by the two sides in 1993, as Israel wants. The Palestinians have refused to renegotiate the agreement.
Plenty of food had been taken into the meeting site in case the talks between Dan Shomron, Israel’s former military chief, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat — with U.S. envoy Dennis Ross sitting in — lasted deep into the night.
But the session ended after only three hours, with both sides saying only that they were committed to the Israel-PLO peace accords. The talks were expected to continue Monday.
“We are determined to preserve the peace process and give it every chance. We will be able to put the peace process on track when we start implementing the agreements,” Erakat said. “We are also determined to end all force of violence.”
Shomron said the meeting was intended to “renew the system of trust that is a condition for progress.”
The talks took place at the drab, military-style compound at Erez that embodies the unequal, frustrating relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
Here, tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers used to cross daily into Israel looking for work. Israeli restrictions imposed after terrorist bombings began in 1995 have meant that only a fraction of the work force can enter even when the gates are open.
Concrete cubes the size of refrigerators are positioned on the road to guard against potential car bombers coming out the crowded, Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has his headquarters.
Some of last month’s gun battles were fought just two miles away.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who flew in for pep talks with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the meeting, took pains to show he understood Israel’s security concerns.
But between meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem and traveling to the Gaza Strip to see Arafat, he repeatedly urged “concrete results as soon as possible.”
A White House statement drove the point home: “The president calls on the parties to conduct these discussions in a spirit of partnership and goodwill in order that tangible results are achieved as soon as possible.”
An Israeli official said President Clinton had let both sides know at last week’s summit in Washington that he expected results within 45 days.
Netanyahu, a conservative elected in May, was never happy with the deal signed by the previous government. Palestinians have accused him of dragging his feet on implementing the accord.
At a news conference with Christopher, Netanyahu said he accepted the need for speed but refused to be tied to a deadline.
He told the Palestinians he was not seeking to reopen the peace accords, but wanted “adjustments to certain clauses, mostly on security issues.”
Referring to the gun battles that killed more than 70 people and almost toppled the peace process, Netanyahu said Israel was concerned for the safety of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But Palestinians may not see them as mere adjustments. Erakat said the Palestinians might seek international arbitration “if the Israelis come to tell us they want to change the agreement.”
“We are asking for implementation, precise implementation,” Arafat said in an interview with Palestinian television.
The Palestinians’ priority is to get Israel to withdraw from the West Bank city of Hebron as promised and to carry out various measures that would make life easier for the Palestinians.
The negotiators on Sunday agreed to set up a special subcommittee to deal exclusively with the Hebron issue.
The Palestinians have put their stone-throwing war against the Israelis on hold pending the talks, and Israel reciprocated by partially lifting the virtual siege it imposed on Palestinian cities after the gun battles.
On Sunday, Israel ended the 10-day curfew in Hebron, the only West Bank city it still occupies; pulled its tanks back from some populous areas and restored freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza and much of the West Bank. People in Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkarem, Jenin and Qalqiliya — where there was heavy fighting last month — remained confined.
Israel Radio said the closure of Tulkarem and Jenin would end Monday, and that 2,000 workers would be allowed back to their jobs at an industrial zone at the Erez compound.
In addition to the Hebron withdrawal, Arafat says his main concerns are the need for a corridor linking the West bank and Gaza Strip and an airport in Gaza whose opening is being resisted by the Israelis.