Although Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat has promised to spend the next two weeks considering a modification of the Wye accords, he strongly hinted that the answer would be no.
“We must see the precise, accurate implementation of agreements signed on the basis of reciprocity,” Arafat said at a joint news conference Tuesday night with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
During their two-hour meeting, Barak had proposed merging full implementation of the Wye accord with talks on an overall peace settlement with the Palestinians. Such talks would include the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The two met at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Arafat said the Wye agreement worked out last October in Wye, Md., called for an Israeli withdrawal from another 13.1 percent of the West Bank, opening of a safe-passage route traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the construction of the Gaza seaport.
Barak was careful to say that even if Arafat rejected his offer, Israel would fully uphold the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal as long as the Palestinians met their commitments, including the fight against terrorism. His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, suspended the Wye accord in December after withdrawing from only 2 percent of the West Bank on the grounds the Palestinians were not combating terrorism as promised.
“We intend to uphold the Wye accord,” Barak insisted. “It is a signed agreement by the government of Israel. The thoughts we have brought up will be decided by the Palestinians. If it is decided to reject them and implement the agreement as it stands, the agreement will be implemented.”
Arafat made a similar pledge, saying: “We reiterated our full commitment to implement all our obligations pertaining to agreements signed, including our security commitments. We will continue with our policy of zero tolerance to violence and terror, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis.”
It was the leaders’ second working meeting since Barak’s election May 17, and they described it as “frank” and “candid.”
At the news conference, Arafat also called for implementation of economic accords linked to the Oslo peace process and demanded a freeze on Jewish settlements. He added that the two sides had agreed to form a joint committee regarding the third phase of redeployment.
Barak would reportedly like to proceed with the second withdrawal of another 5 percent of the West Bank but delay the third phase because it would leave 15 Israeli settlements surrounded by Palestinian territory, creating security problems. The third withdrawal would leave the Palestinians with full or partial control of 40 percent of the West Bank, up from 27 percent now.
Although senior Palestinian leaders have publicly agreed with Arafat that there can be no delay in implementing Wye — there were also Palestinian street demonstrations to that affect this week — Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has sided with Barak. Beilin, an architect of the Oslo peace accords and a supporter of a Palestinian state, told Israel radio that Barak’s proposal was not aimed at stalling the peace process.
“We are not talking about Netanyahu II,” he said.
The Barak-Arafat meeting was the second the two men have had this week. They met on Sunday together with President Bill Clinton at the funeral of Moroccan King Hassan in Rabat, Morocco. Also at the funeral, Barak had a friendly exchange with Algeria’s new leader, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which surprised many because Israel and Algeria are technically at war. But low level meetings between Israeli and Algerian government officials have reportedly been held for the last year.
On Monday, Barak spoke by phone with Jordan’s King Abdullah II following his meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad, who at the last minute cancelled his planned trip to the Hassan funeral. The Syrian president was reportedly irked that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy leaked to the media plans for an Assad-Barak meeting at the funeral. A peeved Levy later told Israel television that Assad must enter into direct negotiations if he wants peace.
“Where is Assad heading?” he asked. “He wants peace? Peace is made when you speak together. Please take the step. Speak with Israel.”
Although details of the Damascus meeting were not released, Jordanian officials said the king briefed Assad on his meetings at the funeral with Clinton and Barak. On Tuesday, a palace source said Syria and Israel agreed to resume talks from where they were suspended in February 1996. And two senior Israeli military officers said Syria had sent signals that it was more agreeable to peace talks.
Last week, Syria’s ruling Baath Party newspaper said Syria welcomed any “serious” offers to resume peace talks with Israel. It said Syria “openly chooses peace and we are ready to travel this road and do everything possible to reach this goal.”
Meanwhile, the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said it planned to meet with Arafat’s Fatah group in what is seen as a step toward reconciliation. And Hezbollah chief Seyyed Hassan, whose group has been fighting Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, said “doors will open” for a settlement with Lebanon and Syria if Israel agrees to withdraw from the Golan Heights, returning to its June 1967 border. That is the position Syria claims Israel had agreed to before the talks broke off; Israel disagrees.
In another development, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qureia, visited the Knesset on Monday at the invitation of Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. Although he did not address the Knesset and the Palestinian flag was not flown for the occasion, Qureia’s acceptance of the invitation was seen as another step in the development of peaceful relations between Palestinians and Jews. Qureia extended a reciprocal invitation for Burg to visit the PLC in Ramallah.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.