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Monday, September 04, 2000, updated at 14:43(GMT+8)

Barak Heads for New York to Seek Peace

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is to leave for New York Sunday night to attend the upcoming U.N. Millennium Summit, trying to determine the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian talks there.

The summit, a gathering of 159 of the world's leaders, is slated for September 6-8. Barak plans to meet with U.S. President Bill Clinton on the sidelines of the summit, and Clinton will meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat separately. The meetings will be the first since the three convened a peace summit at Camp David in July.

The U.S.-sponsored Camp David talks lasted 15 days, but failed to reach any agreement due to significant gaps between Israel and the Palestinians over the fate of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees.

Barak's office had repeatedly denied in recent days that there are any plans for another summit between the three in New York, highlighting the frustration and gloominess felt by Israelis toward the stagnant peace process.

Since the collapse of the Camp David talks, there were lower-level negotiations between Israeli acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Dahlan. However, there were no reports about significant progress on the core issues, especially on the future status of Jerusalem.

U.S. Mideast special envoy Dennis Ross, meanwhile, had left the region empty-handed Saturday night after a two-week peace exploration. And Egyptian officials had raised new ideas for a solution of the sovereignty of East Jerusalem, Old City and Temple Mount. Nevertheless, no proposals could be accepted by the two sides.

In the past few days, Barak had repeatedly accused Arafat of showing no flexibility and openness in the talks, and claimed that the ball now is in the Palestinian court.

Finger-pointing does not help the peace process, analysts believed. The Palestinians, meanwhile, insisted that Israel should be the side that makes further compromises in future talks.

Other warning signals showed that Barak, who lost his parliamentary majority ahead of the Camp David talks, may begin preparations for an early election in case that the talks ended without an agreement.

On August 14, Barak's Finance Minister Avraham Shochat announced that purchase taxes on 630 products will be abolished or dramatically lowered.

A week later, Barak made another dramatic announcement about a package of civil reform proposals, in which he will deliver a constitution within a year, approve civil marriages, call for national military service for all and cancel the Religious Affairs Ministry. These moves were obviously aimed at attracting votes from secular Israelis in the next election.

Barak also reached out to right-wing Likud party to explore the possibility to form a so-called "broad-based" coalition. But as officials in Jerusalem claimed, such a socioeconomic-oriented coalition might shelve the Israeli-Palestinian talks at least for a while.

In this context, the summit meeting between Barak and Arafat in New York could be the last chance for the two sides to bridge gaps and renew their talks. With control over only 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), Barak will surely face great pressure from rightist elements in the parliament once the Knesset reconvened at the end of October after the summer recess.

Although recent signals showed that the Palestinians may postpone the target date for declaration of statehood from September 13 to November 15, the question is whether Barak is able to sustain for so long.

Some right-wing parties have launched a drive to prevent Barak from signing any agreement without a parliamentary majority and grassroots protesters demonstrating outside the Prime Minister's Office Sunday morning already claimed Barak no longer has the mandate from the people.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is to leave for New York Sunday night to attend the upcoming U.N. Millennium Summit, trying to determine the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian talks there.

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