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US awaits results of Israeli-Palestinian talks

US awaits results of Israeli-Palestinian talks

U.S. President Bill Clinton's last-gasp attempt to sketch a peace blueprint for Israel and the Palestinians appeared on Thursday to rest on the success of talks between the two sides on stemming 15 weeks of bloodshed.

Top Israeli and Palestinian security officials met late into the night on Wednesday at the Israel-Gaza border in a followup to talks Israeli cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak held a day earlier with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

"It was a good meeting. The real test will be in the field," an Israeli official said about the session that came on the heels of a U.S. announcement that Clinton's Middle East envoy Dennis Ross had postponed indefinitely a visit to the region.

"He has now put the trip on hold, given security meetings that are happening now at various levels in the region," White House spokesman Jake Siewert told reporters.

"At this point, Dennis still plans to travel to the region, but we have not set a revised date," he said. "We're looking right now at whether we can see some reduction in the level of violence. It's going to be important."

Palestinian officials said Lipkin-Shahak and other Israeli security officials met at Gaza's Erez Crossing with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Gaza Preventive Security chief Mohammed Dahlan and Dahlan's West Bank counterpart, Jibril Rajoub.

Israeli Army Radio described the session as the highest-level security meeting both warring sides have held in weeks.

But Ross's prospects looked unpromising - not only because of the uncertainty over his trip, originally slated for Thursday, but also given a lack of compromise on some of the toughest issues of 52 years of conflict.

CLINTON PLAN COULD CHART PATH FOR BUSH

At least 306 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 43 other Israelis have been killed in the Palestinian uprising that followed a failed U.S.-led bid to forge a final peace at Camp David in July.

No fatalities were reported in Israeli-Palestinian violence on Wednesday, but previous lulls in the fighting over the past three months have been short-lived.

Clinton outlined his peace blueprint in New York this week, including Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian renunciation of the right of refugees to return to homes in Israel.

If Israel and the Palestinians do agree on Clinton's proposals before he leaves office on January 20, that would form the basis for further negotiations, probably under the incoming administration of George W. Bush, to fill in the details.

"No one's throwing in the towel," White House National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

U.S. officials have said Ross would focus on getting something in writing to show the Bush administration, in order to ensure that progress made thus far was not lost.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, meanwhile, was scheduled to meet U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Paris on Friday, the Israeli embassy said.

Much will depend on the outcome of Israel's February 6 prime ministerial election. Opinion polls show Prime Minister Ehud Barak trailing far behind right-wing challenger Ariel Sharon.

SHARON SAYS WOULD MAKE PEACE CONCESSIONS.

In a major policy speech opening his election campaign on Wednesday, Sharon said he would make peace concessions to the Palestinians - and then listed terms they have long rejected.

"A government under my leadership will keep Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, whole and united under Israeli sovereignty forever," he said in a speech that contained no surprises.

Nor would a Sharon-led government permit the return to present-day Israel of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes in the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, he vowed.

Barak has also ruled out a right of return to Israel, an influx which Israeli officials have called demographic suicide for the Jewish state.

U.N. figures put the number of Palestinian refugees, including descendants of those who left in 1948, at 3.5 million. The Palestinians say the figure is more than four million.


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