JERUSALEM (AP) — Deepening a sense of crisis in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Palestinian negotiators unexpectedly walked out of talks in Jerusalem Monday night.
The walkout came hours after U.S. mediator Dennis Ross announced that he was returning to Washington. Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other for an impasse after two weeks of talks.
It was not clear when the Palestinians intended to return to the negotiating table.
Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for Israel’s government, told The Associated Press that “in principle” the negotiations would continue Tuesday. He said the Palestinians seemed angry, “but we believe these are delaying tactics.”
The latest round of talks began in response to a plea from President Clinton following a week of violence in which Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers opened fire on one another, killing 79 people. At a summit in Washington, Clinton persuaded the two sides to negotiate non-stop until they reached agreement.
But since then, the Palestinians have walked out of talks several times to consult with Arafat, each time returning to the table. The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday night that the latest walkout was not a major crisis in the peace process.
Ross said there had been progress in the latest round — just not enough. Israel, on the other hand, claimed that only details remained unresolved and accused Palestinians of stalling. The Palestinians said both were overestimating the progress.
The talks continued after Ross announced his departure. But Palestinian negotiators “got up and walked out” from a session discussing security in the West Bank town of Hebron after Israeli troops pull out, according to Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for Israel’s government.
A Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, went to the nearby autonomous West Bank city of Bethlehem to report to Yasser Arafat on the new disagreements.
Fogel said the Palestinians walked out after the Israelis refused to renegotiate aspects of the agreement that had been worked out in recent negotiations. A separate committee working on civilian aspects of the new Hebron arrangement was still meeting, he said.
Erekat had suggested earlier that Ross’ assessment of progress was overly optimistic.
“Mr. Ross has been talking about progress since the first day he got here,” he told The Associated Press. “Maybe in his way Mr. Ross sees progress, but in our way we do not see any progress.”
The main thrust of the talks is the much-delayed Israeli troop withdrawal from Hebron, the last West Bank town it occupies. In addition to the security issues, the two sides are stuck on civilian questions such as whether to give building permits to Jewish settlers in Hebron.
The U.S. official said the two sides made significant progress Wednesday on the civilian issues, agreeing on authority over building permits.
While Israel seems almost eager for agreement on the pullout, the Palestinians appear to be angling for a farther-reaching agreement that includes other unresolved issues.
Ross, who was sent to get the talks back on track after last month’s riots, denied reports that he had given an ultimatum to both sides to make significant progress — or see him return to Washington.
“This is not a step to put pressure,” said Ross, who added he would return to the region when the “time was appropriate” and that an accord could be reached “relatively soon.”
“We made progress this week,” he said. “I think there were hopes that we could finalize in some areas. That didn’t materialize. It doesn’t mean we can’t press ahead and reach agreement as soon as possible.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Ross would return to the Middle East within a week, and that the United States would continue to assist in the negotiations in his absence.
Ross has played an important role over the past two weeks, shuttling between the two sides and even drafting U.S. proposals for an agreement.