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Envoy's return to Middle East shows U.S. pressure on xTC Arafat Israel, Palestinians in talks on Hebron


JERUSALEM -- Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East peace envoy, prepared yesterday to head back to Israel amid signs of stepped-up U.S. pressure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to wrap up a deal on the West Bank town of Hebron.

Arafat, though, seemed in no mood to accept the American urgings or Ross' mediation effort. The Palestinian leader told reporters in Gaza yesterday that he hoped Ross would be an unbiased mediator but added that he saw no hope for an agreement any time soon.

Since October, Israel and the Palestinians have been involved in tortuous negotiations on the terms and timing of an Israeli troop withdrawal from Hebron, the only major Palestinian city still under occupation.

Each side has blamed the other for the latest delays in reaching an agreement. But a senior U.S. official involved in the talks placed responsibility for the holdup now squarely on the Palestinian leader.

"The hesitancy is coming from Arafat," the U.S. official said yesterday, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now seems eager to conclude a deal. Arafat, though, is "unwilling to bring it to closure; and if it doesn't happen soon, he's going to be the loser."

The Palestinians, he said, appeared to be trying to squeeze further concessions out of Israel before signing the agreement, which has been all but complete for weeks. According to the official, Arafat worries that once the Hebron accord is made final, international pressure on Israel will cease and other scheduled Israeli redeployments will not occur.

Arafat is "extraordinary distrustful of any kind of commitment from the Israelis," the U.S. official said. But without moving forward with the agreement, he said, there will be little chance to build confidence.

The unusually strong comments followed a nudge Thursday from Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who urged Palestinians to respond to recent Israeli moves aimed at bringing the negotiations to fruition.

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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