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Mideast leaders agree to hold summit
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Premier Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are due to hold a summit in Egypt on Thursday, to discuss peace proposals put forward by U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The three leaders will meet in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh to discuss the U.S. peace plan, aimed at forming the basis for a permanent settlement in the Middle East.
President Clinton is expecting to hear by Wednesday if Palestinian and Israeli leaders will either accept or reject his outline for future negotiations on a Palestinian state, refugees and sovereignty over holy sites.
A senior U.S. official has told CNN that if Arafat and Barak accept the Clinton proposal, the president will invite both leaders to meet separately with him at the White House next week.
Only if those meetings occur will the White House consider a second Camp David-style summit, said the adviser, who is intimately involved in the peace process.
"We're not going to rush into a summit here. There are no risk-free summits, but we want to see a significant narrowing of differences on these key issues," the official said.
At Camp David last July, disputes over Jerusalem hinged on religious needs, rather than political or security issues.
The Temple Mount, for example, became an issue of huge symbolic importance to Israelis, even though relatively few Jews visit or worship there.
The Israelis were also troubled by the Palestinian demand for the full return of tens of thousands of refugees, the adviser said.
To them, it suggested the Palestinians were not seeking a homeland, but a means to ensure the eventual demographic conquest of Israel.
Under the Clinton proposal, Palestinians would have sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif, one of the holiest places in Islam. The Israelis would have sovereignty over the Western Wall at the bottom of the Temple Mount.
The president's proposal also includes a deal whereby refugees would not return to Israel but receive financial compensation.
"We've listened to both sides intently over the past 18 months, and both sides thought it would be useful for the president to articulate those parameters," the adviser said. "They encouraged us to do this."
Barak's inner circle of advisers -- his security Cabinet -- was meeting on Wednesday morning and planned to vote on the U.S. peace proposals, army radio said. The prime minister's office confirmed only that the meeting was taking place.
Barak has said publicly he is inclined to accept the proposals.
Arafat, who attended early-morning prayers on Wednesday to mark the start of the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, said Palestinians were still "discussing all aspects" of the U.S. proposals.
"This holiday is decisive," he said. "With God's help, it will lead to a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl raising the flag of Palestine over the walls of Jerusalem."
On the first morning of the Eid, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Palestinians traditionally pay visits to family graves. This year, families all over the West Bank and Gaza were mourning the dead of the three-month-old uprising.
Clinton steps down January 20, and his efforts at obtaining a peace settlement were acknowledged this week by Barak.
Barak said that if Arafat agrees to Clinton's proposal, "we will not be able to refuse to engage in negotiations at such a dramatic time for President Clinton, who has invested 7 1/2 years" on a Mideast peace settlement.
White House sources, referring to Wednesday's deadline, told CNN it could be flexible provided both sides report progress in reaching an agreement.
Negotiations have been at a stalemate since the Camp David talks collapsed and were further undermined by nearly three months of violence in which at least 373 people have died.
At least 321 of those killed were Palestinians, 39 were Israeli Jews and 13 were Israeli Arabs.
In addition to a peace agreement, Barak faces other pressures.
A special election for his post is set for February 6 following his abrupt resignation on December 10. Barak hopes to forge a deal, and use the election as a referendum on the agreement.
Arafat met with Mubarak in Egypt on Monday to sound out of Egypt's position on the U.S. proposals. Barak will also meet with Jordan's King Abdullah over the proposal's terms, Israel Radio reported.
Fighting, talks loom over Bethlehem
Israel Defense Forces (in Hebrew)
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