Barak, Arafat agree to summit

Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat agreed Saturday to attend a U.S.-sponsored summit in Egypt on Monday to try to bring an end to more than two weeks of deadly violence that has shattered Middle East peace prospects and threatened regional stability.

President Clinton, who had been working for more than a week to set up face-to-face talks between the two leaders, said he will attend the meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, along with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and a senior European Union official.

Although Clinton said the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had agreed to attend the talks without preconditions, the announcement was accompanied by a marked reduction in clashes between the two sides and no fatalities – in what was possibly a concerted effort to pave the way for the meeting.

In another apparent step toward easing tensions, the Palestinian Authority sent 15 members of the extremist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements back to jail after releasing them during last week’s turmoil in an unspoken threat to renew terrorism against Israel.

Nonetheless, Clinton quickly set out to limit expectations for the summit, which will pursue a cease-fire rather than the broader peace agreement that just a few months ago he still believed he could forge before leaving office.

“We should be under no illusions,” the president said in Washington. “The good news is the parties have agreed to meet and the situation appears to be calmer. But the path ahead is difficult. After the terrible events of the past few days, the situation is still quite tense.

“Our central objectives must now be to stop the violence, to restore common safety, to agree on a fact-finding mechanism concerning how this began and how it can be prevented from occurring again and to find a way back to dialogue and negotiations,” he said.

The Palestinians had resisted a meeting with Barak ahead of an Arab League summit to be held in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, but Arafat came under intense international pressure after the violence escalated Thursday, when a Palestinian mob lynched two Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliated with missile attacks on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Furthermore, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas are holding three Israeli soldiers captured on Israel’s northern border Oct. 7. Negotiations are ongoing, although Israel has threatened to retaliate against Lebanon and its de facto rulers in Syria if the soldiers are not released.

The Israeli-Palestinian violence has fueled Islamic fundamentalist-driven demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan, which have peace agreements with Israel, and might have provoked a wave of attacks on U.S. and British targets in the region.

As soon as they agreed to attend, both sides laid out the demands they will take to the negotiating table.

Israel blamed the Palestinians for initiating the clashes and insisted that the Palestinian media cease inciting violence. The Israeli government demanded that the Palestinian Authority disarm militias organized by Arafat’s Fatah movement and jail members of the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad who were let out of prison in recent days.

The Palestinian Authority says the widespread riots against Israeli soldiers were triggered by right-wing Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s Sept. 28 visit to Jerusalem’s most contested holy site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, and that Israel has responded to the fury with excessive force.

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