Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak says Israel's refusal to allow the return of Palestinian refugees is absolute, leaving little room for compromise on a key peace plan point that has Arab nations pressing Yasser Arafat to hold firm.
Barak underscored the noreturn position after Arab foreign ministers meeting Thursday in Cairo called Palestinian refugees' return a "sacred right."
Arafat had submitted U.S. proposals for IsraeliPalestinian peace talks to the Arab ministers for their review, on his way home from a Washington meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton in which Arafat conditionally accepted the terms as a basis for negotiations.
Clinton's proposals call for Palestinians to give up their demand for the resettling of millions of Palestinian refugees and descendants in Israel. In turn, Israel would cede control of a disputed Jerusalem holy site.
"We will not accept under any circumstances the right of return to Israel," Barak told an election rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, adding that Israel would never cede sovereignty of the holy site to the Palestinians.
"We will not do it at any price," Barak said of the two points.
Despite his uncompromising tone, Barak has not explicitly ruled out allowing thirdparty sovereignty over the holy site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram esSharif.
Israel's chief negotiator is in Washington seeking more details on the terms of Arafat's acceptance. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Friday that Palestinians would not think about sending a team to Washington for any talks until they learn the outcome of those IsraeliU.S. contacts in Washington.
Palestinian refugees welcomed the Arab foreign ministers' declaration upholding their cause.
"It is our land, and we must return," 66yearold Ibrahim Jouarish said in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, referring to his family's old village of Malha. The former village is now the site of stadiums, a shopping mall and a biblical zoo in Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo BenAmi objected that the insistence on allowing all refugees to return to Israel is "outside the parameters" of the Clinton proposals.
Before talks can resume, Israeli officials say there must be a significant reduction in Palestinian violence.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh called on Arafat to order an end to Palestinian attacks within 24 hours the real test of Arafat's intentions, Sneh spokesman Hillel Fertouk said.
And fearing that flickering peace hopes could be snuffed out if Israel were to come under attack again, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urgently advised Yasser Arafat to keep his promise to curb Palestinian violence.
Using a public forum, a joint news conference with the Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, Albright declared: "It is absolutely essential for him to live up to the various commitments he made to try to lessen violence and get it under control."
In another step to make it easier for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians, CIA director George Tenet probably will go to Cairo to meet Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
Tenet's participation lends highlevel experience and assurance to antiterrorism planning.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.