Draft accord raises hopes


Despite the complete breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the past three months, and the deaths of some 330 people, negotiators are set to begin talks in Washington today amid surprising optimism about the prospects for a breakthrough.

An unconfirmed report on Israel Television last night suggested that the Clinton Administration believes an "end of conflict" accord, permanently resolving all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is within reach. The report quoted from what it said was a "draft" of a possible accord, dealing with the two issues that have prevented agreement in the past: rival claims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugee rights. On the Temple Mount, under the draft deal, the Palestinians would claim Islamic sovereignty over the site, Israel would state that the area falls under "divine sovereignty" and the situation on the ground - under which a Muslim trust administers the two mosques atop the Mount - would remain unchanged.

As for the refugees, Israel would acknowledge the theoretical right of Palestinian refugees to return to places of origin inside Israeli territory, but would be entitled to reject any or all refugee claims, and a mechanism for financially compensating refugees and resettling many of them in countries such as Australia and Canada would be agreed.

Whether or not these rather vague formulas are indeed being seriously entertained, there has been an unmistakable upsurge in enthusiasm for the talks among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders - in defiance of all conventional wisdom.

And yet both Mr Barak and Mr Arafat appear to be taking this new diplomatic initiative seriously. For Mr Barak it offers the only prospect of political salvation. Mr Arafat is reported to have instructed his negotiating team to "reach a comprehensive agreement with Israel within a month".