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Middle East Maneuvers

Just after returning to Israel from a meeting with President Clinton at the White House, Prime Minister Ehud Barak indicated that settlement construction on the Golan Heights would now be resumed.

"Since we see that the door is left with a very small crack of possibilities of renewal of talks with Syria, that part of the projects that had been delayed for several months on the Golan Heights will get permission to move forward," Barak said at a news conference in Jerusalem.

Whether the move is intended to put pressure on Syria to resume negotiations or simply to send Damascus a message that Israel considers negotiations for return of the Golan Heights to be all but finished is not yet clear.

Barak's four-hour-long meeting with Mr. Clinton this week focused mostly on the Israel-Palestinian negotiating track, though the two leaders also discussed Syria and the planned withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Lebanon.

After the meeting, a senior administration official said "The President feels...very encouraged that there is an intensification, renewed energy in the Palestinian track."

For any diplomatic effort to bear fruit it will take more than that. Senior-level Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, talking about the core issues for which solutions will have to be found if there is to be a deal between Israel and the Palestinians: settlements, borders, a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and water.

"The Bolling talks are important but they can't solve anything," said an Israeli diplomatic source in Washington. "The historic compromises needed for a deal will have to be made by political leaders."

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed that a framework agreement for a deal should be in place by mid-May and a final deal finished by September 13th. That looks possible on paper, but there remain many very tough political compromises ahead if this schedule is to be followed.

So the administration's Middle East negotiating team, including the president as chief negotiator, now await Yasir Arafat, who is due in Washington April 20th.

In late May, Barak is scheduled to return to Washington. There is already talk of asking Arafat to return so there could be a three-way summit meeting, but it is much too soon to know if such a meeting is realistic, not to mention whether or not it would be productive.

What is known, says the Israeli diplomat, is that a "strategic decision"
to move the talks forward on the Palestinian track has been agreed upon by Prime Minister Barak and Mr. Clinton.

What remains unknown is just how bold Barak and Arafat are willing to be in the compromises both will be forced to make. That, and how sweet the president is willing to make the deal.


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