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Palestinians postpone declaration of statehood

Barak praises the decision, but there are no plans to renew peace talks yet.

Palestinian policy-makers voted Sunday to postpone declaring independence this week to give stalled peace talks with Israel a last chance at success.

"The Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership remain committed to the choice of peace," said a statement issued by the 129-member PLO Central Council after a closely watched two-day meeting.

As he headed back to Israel after a week in New York, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised Arafat's decision but said there were no plans to resume the peace talks any time soon.

"The contact will be continued," Barak said on ABC. "I don't know whether negotiations is the appropriate name, but I believe that we have to exploit fully the very limited time that still is ahead of us."

Barak suggested he would consider less than full Israeli sovereignty over the key holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by Muslims and Jews, in a bid to keep alive hopes for a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

The PLO Central Council announced it would reconvene to discuss statehood on Nov. 15, the 12th anniversary of a symbolic declaration of independence made by the PLO leadership. Nov. 15 is also one week after the presidential election in the United States, so when they meet to discuss statehood again, the PLO Central Council will know whether Republican George Bush or Democrat Al Gore will be in the White House come January 2001.

The delay is an indication of how keenly Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat feels the pressure from Washington and the international community not to risk a total collapse of a peace effort by declaring a state unilaterally, which would provoke a response from Israel that could include annexation of areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Palestinians want for their future nation.

Arafat is also under pressure from his people to proclaim statehood and he has for months said Sept. 13 was his preferred date.

"President Arafat told President Clinton we are willing to wait for four or five weeks to move forward with the Israelis to make peace for a Palestinian state," said Sa'ad B'seissu, director general of the Palestinian Authority information ministry. "But it cannot go on forever."

In the meantime, the Palestinian mini-parliament pledged to take steps now to give residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip a greater feeling of sovereignty. Those include writing a constitution and holding local and presidential elections.

Middle East analyst Ehud Ya'ari said the PLO Council's decision signaled a new commitment to a peace agreement by Arafat during the remaining weeks before the Nov. 7 U.S. presidential election.

"We shall now be seeing a more intensive and perhaps a more sincere attempt than we have seen so far," Ya'ari said. "What they are saying is: We'll wait until U.S. citizens go to the polls. Then if there's still no agreement, in the twilight period after the elections and before a new president is installed in the White House, perhaps we'll change our strategy."

Wednesday is the official expiration of all previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israel. When he signed those agreements _ the Oslo Accords _ in 1993, Arafat expected to proclaim statehood by May 1999, five years after he set up the Palestinian Authority, an interim government in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the May 1999 date fell in the middle of an Israeli election campaign and Arafat agreed to demands by the United States and other countries that he give a new Israeli leader a chance to negotiate a final peace deal that would end the 52-year Middle East conflict.

One year ago, Arafat and Barak, the newly elected Israeli prime minister, set Sept. 13, 2000, as their deadline for resolving the hardest points of dispute. Those discussions began in earnest only last winter.

Key issues include borders and security arrangements for a future Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the fate of 3.6-million Palestinian refugees.

But the toughest problem is how to share Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. It was that issue that finally deadlocked the last round of high-level peace talks between Barak and Arafat, 15 days of conversations brokered by Clinton at the Camp David presidential retreat in the mountains of western Maryland.

Clinton met again with both Barak and Arafat in New York last week and since then, officials on all sides have expressed pessimism about the chance of a breakthrough. Both Barak and Arafat feel they would betray their people if they give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount, known to Palestinians as Haram as-Sharif, the home of sites sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Barak suggested Sunday that while he would not agree to Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, he would not necessarily insist on formal Israeli rule there, either.

"Somehow, a formula should be found that would not contradict both statements," he said, referring to rival sovereignty claims.

While Arafat has agreed to resume talks as early as today, several leading Palestinians have begun to suggest he has lost faith in Clinton and may be willing to try his luck with the next U.S. president.

Palestinians have been particularly stung by the blame and pressure that Clinton has put on them for insisting on their right under international law to regain East Jerusalem, which Israel captured as a result of the 1967 war.

"So long as Mr. Clinton represents the Israeli point of view, how can we reach an agreement? It's clear he is not a neutral man," said Hani Hassan, secretary-general of Arafat's dominant Fattah faction. "We are not ready to destroy our future to let Mr. Barak save his government and Mr. Clinton get his Nobel prize."

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