Dropping demand for international inquiry, Arafat agrees to new summit

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat agreed Saturday to attend a summit aimed at ending the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades, dropping his demand for what had been a deal-breaker - an international commission of inquiry into the violence.

Yasser Arafat agreed Saturday to attend a summit aimed at ending the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades, dropping his demand for what had been a deal-breaker - an international commission of inquiry into the violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has been in the region for a week brokering an end to the bloodshed, said the summit would take place in Egypt on Sunday or Monday, and without preconditions.

"There were no preconditions. There were suggestions," Annan told CNN.

Each side was quick to name those "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.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office said it expected Arafat to re-arrest dozens of Islamic militants released from Palestinian jails.

Not appearing on anyone's list was the Palestinian demand to convene an international inquiry into the reasons for the violence. Barak had adamantly rejected that condition, saying that he only trusted the United States to lead such an inquiry.

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 formalise a cease-fire.

Annan said that the main goal would be to sign onto a cease-fire. "I have asked both sides to stop firing until the summit," he said.

Annan said he expected U.S. President Bill Clinton and Mubarak to work out the details. Mubarak had already offered to host the summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

In Washington, the White House said it was awaiting word from Mubarak "as to whether he feels the conditions are in place to convene a summit." Mubarak had said that if all parties agree, the summit should be held on Monday.

An earlier round of U.S.-led mediation in France and then in Egypt failed to bring the fierce fighting to a halt. Barak said that in Paris the two leaders had been presented with a document to end the unrest but "Arafat refused to sign and went back to violence."

Barak's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said that 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. He said Israel still expected Arafat to re-arrest dozens of Islamic militants released from jail over the last few days.

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."

On Friday, Palestinians marched to protest Israeli missile attacks a day earlier on Palestinian command centers - retribution for the brutal killing of two Israeli reserve soldiers by a Palestinian mob at a police station in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The 16 days of clashes were triggered by the visit of Israel's hardline opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, to a Jerusalem shrine holy to Jews and Muslims.

The violence appeared to be abating, and Israel and the Palestinians appeared to be stepping back from the brink of war. But relations were so strained that Arafat and Barak asked international mediators, including Annan and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, to carry messages back and forth.

Barak is also 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.

Comments