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PM Ehud Barak pulls out of Middle East summit

Israel does not rule out late-night meeting between Egyptian leader and Barak

Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has cancelled plans to attend a Middle East peace summit in Egypt today.

Barak scrapped a trip to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and possibly Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, although Mubarak and Arafat were going ahead with their own talks.

An Israeli diplomatic source said Barak and Mubarak would speak after those talks. The source did not rule out the possibility of late-night meetings but gave no further details.

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Clinton's peace proposals followed five days of talks in Washington that raised hopes of ending the conflict between Israel and Palestinians and recent three months of fighting, which has killed at least 343 people, mostly Palestinians.

No deaths have been reported in four days, a rarity in the weeks of violence, although Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers exchanged fire in the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday. But Israel TV reports that at mid-day today two small explosives blew up on a bus, wounding seven people, one seriously.

Israel had conditionally accepted Clinton's blueprint for peace after a late-night security cabinet meeting, despite the Palestinian Authority's apparent objections.

"In an additional consultation between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak it was decided that at this stage Barak will not travel to Sharm el-Sheikh today," Barak's office said in a statement.

"After the Mubarak-Arafat meeting in Cairo the issue will be reassessed," the statement added.

An Israeli diplomatic source said the Mubarak-Barak meeting had been cancelled because "since Arafat didn't give a clear answer about the American proposals there is no point in going."

The Palestinians sent an ambiguous letter on Wednesday to Washington that was reported to have neither accepted nor rejected Clinton's suggestions for resolving crucial issues such as Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian Authority's letter raised concerns over key elements of Clinton's plan. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said a final response would depend on U.S. clarifications.

Barak's office said after the security cabinet that Israel viewed Clinton's ideas "as a basis for discussion provided that they remain unchanged as a basis for discussion also by the Palestinian side".

It said it would seek clarification from Washington on several unspecified issues related to Israel's vital interests.

Clinton told reporters the sides were closer than ever to an agreement and urged Barak and Arafat to "seize this opportunity".

But Palestinians expressed deep reservations over Clinton's plan, and one official said the letter sent to the U.S. "avoided the issue of rejection or acceptance of the proposals".

A meeting between Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation's (PLO) Executive Committee to weigh Clinton's plan ended with a statement reiterating "the commitment to the Palestinian positions expressed since the Camp David summit," which ended in failure in July.

"We have reservations over the whole American paper," senior Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters.

"We cannot accept it because accepting it would endanger our national destiny and would represent a danger for the future of every Palestinian child for many generations to come," he said.

Erekat told CNN television than any vagueness in the U.S. proposals "may lead to an explosion later on". That is why the agreement "requires above everything details, details, details", he added.

Abed Rabbo said the proposals were "worse than what has been presented to us in Camp David. So how could we accept this?"

He said one of the Palestinian concerns was that under the deal Israel would hold as much as 10 percent of the West Bank and Palestinians would not have full control of East Jerusalem and its holy shrines.

Another concern was the plan's failure to address the right to return of refugees who fled or were forced to flee their homes when Israel was established in 1948, he said.

Barak told reporters earlier he was still hopeful for a deal that political analysts say could be his only hope to win re-election in a prime ministerial ballot on February 6.

"The opportunity is very important, the dangers are huge and every side will be responsible for the results," Barak said.

Shaul Mofaz, the chief of staff of Israel's army, attended the security cabinet meeting and raised objections to several clauses in the U.S. proposal, an Israeli diplomatic source said.

The source said Mofaz specifically criticised the security arrangements for the West Bank's Jordan Valley. The military chief said the proposal required Israel to withdraw its forces too quickly.