Door open for last-minute peace deal

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was on Wednesday preparing to send a team of ­negotiators to Washington to meet a Palestinian delegation, raising prospects for a last-minute Middle East peace deal.

Arafat earlier gave his heavily qualified ­acceptance to more negotiations during a ­meeting with United States President Bill Clinton in Washington, according to Palestinian and White Houses sources.

The Palestinian leader left Washington for Egypt on Tuesday after two sessions with Clinton. He met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday to discuss the peace ­proposal before meeting Arab League ­leaders at a summit in Cairo.

A US State Department official said that US negotiators were cautiously optimistic, “but with the emphasis on the caution”. After speaking to Clinton, Barak called a meeting of his Cabinet ministers directly ­involved in the peace negotiations.

But a source inside the prime minister’s office said that Barak’s assessment is unchanged: that there is almost no chance of agreement before Clinton leaves office on January 20 or before the Israeli election on February 6.

Barak, who was planning to speak to Clinton again after the Cabinet meeting, had no plans to go to Washington himself, the source said, adding that the Israeli government did ­not know whether Arafat’s acceptance was tactical or substantive, but suspected the former.

A more upbeat assessment came from Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who said: “I think therewill be a possibility of resuming talks between us and the Palestinians.” However, Beilin ­rejected outright a concession on one of the Palestinians’ main areas of concern, the right of Palestinian refugees to ­return to Israel.

The chief negotiator, Shlomo Ben Ami, said that it was above human power to achieve a deal before Clinton leaves office, “but we have a moral duty to make the effort”. Arafat, who is under pressure from all shades of Palestinian opinion to turn down the US plan, told Clinton he would give a conditional acceptance even though he had reservations about the proposals.

Both the Islamic mili­tant group, Hamas, and Arafat’s own grouping, Fatah, have warned him in recent days not to accept the US plans. Barak, who is trailing in the opinion polls to Ariel Sharon, had hoped to have a peace agreement to put before the Israeli electorate.

This week he switched tack, expressing pessimism about a peace deal. While Barak has adopted hawkish rhetoric, Sharon, a hardliner, has been trying to soften his image to woo votes from the centre. But he said that if elected, he would keep Israeli forces in the Jordan valley, even though the US proposal is for a staged withdrawal.

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