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Israeli envoy to present written reaction to peace proposal
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's senior adviser Gilead Sher is expected to hand a document to U.S. officials on Friday detailing Israel's reaction to President Bill Clinton's proposals and an outline for possible peace talks. (More on the U.S. peace proposals).
CNN was told the handwritten six-page document, addressed to U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, included specific Israeli ideas on how the two sides might resolve their differences. Informal talks are currently under way between Sher and U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross at a Washington hotel.
Barak dispatched Sher to Washington after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offered a conditional acceptance Wednesday of the American proposals following a meeting with Clinton.
Barak's government had offered its own conditional acceptance of Clinton's proposals late last month.
Palestinian officials told CNN that they were keeping an eye on Sher's meeting with the U.S. officials, and could send a representative of their own to Washington later this week if the situation warrants.
The meetings were part of a final push for peace from Clinton, who leaves office after eight years on January 20.
Arafat, arriving at his Gaza headquarters on Thursday following a meeting with Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, Egypt, said that he hoped Israelis and Palestinians could finalize a deal "before Clinton finishes his term as Clinton has promised to exert all of his efforts."
In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers made clear that they would support no concessions on the right of Palestinian refugees -- and their descendants -- who fled or were forced to flee when Israel was founded in 1948 to return to lands in the Jewish state.
"The committee expressed unanimously its backing, support for the Palestinian position," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa following the meeting, who said that the right of return was of concern to all Arabs, and not just Palestinians.
"I would like to point out that Lebanon has totally rejected the idea of resettling the Palestinian refugees (permanently) and insisted on the right of the Palestinians to return," Moussa said. "We believe that this is a sacred right."
The right of return for the refugees -- 3.7 million across the region, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East -- has long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The Israelis, fearing that a massive influx of Palestinians into Israel would destroy the fabric of their country, have flatly rejected any proposal allowing the refugees to return.
Clinton's proposals reportedly called for the Palestinians to drop their demand for the right of return in return for sovereignty over a disputed hilltop in east Jerusalem that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
But Barak, facing a re-election vote on February 6, has repeatedly said he would sign no peace deal that would hand over sovereignty of the Western Wall, the sole remaining piece of the ancient Jewish Temple on the side of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.
The site was the focal point of the start of the latest round of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians, which began on September 28.
Since that time, 328 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, along with 45 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Each side blames the other for the continuation of the violence and insists that no peace is possible until it stops.
Given the wide gaps that still separate the two sides on so many key issues, some Palestinian and Israeli officials alike were pessimistic that a peace deal could be reached in the time left for Clinton's term. (More on the Palestinian concerns).
Palestinian Council member Hanan Ashrawi told CNN that the short timeframe made any kind of agreement unrealistic.
"It will take quite a large stretch of the imagination to expect an agreement, a resolution of a decades-long conflict, in a few days, when for eight years President Clinton was unable to bring about a resolution," she said. "I don't think under duress and an artificially imposed deadline and the pressure of time, you're going to come up with an agreement that will withstand the test of time and test of legitimacy."
Israelis, too, were skeptical that an agreement could be reached before President-elect George W. Bush takes office.
"It is beyond human power to complete the negotiations in such a short time," Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said on Israel radio.
Ben-Ami said later, during a Berlin news conference with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, that he believed the two sides could reach "some fundamental declaration of principles which can form the basis of an agreement" by January 20, according to Reuters news agency.
Arafat meets Mubarak, will consult Arab ministers on U.S. peace proposals
Palestinian National Authority
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