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Peace Deal Nears as Mideast Leaders Tackle Final Issues

Summit: Disputes over land and security are apparently settled as delegations close in on accord. Israel presses for repeal of PLO charter articles calling for its destruction.


QUEENSTOWN, Md. — With most of the core issues of land and security apparently settled, U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders haggled into the early morning hours today over a few remaining disputed matters, hoping to wrap up the marathon Wye Plantation peace summit after eight days of fitful negotiations.

Word of progress came from Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen, who said that virtually all issues had been settled, at least in principle. But U.S. officials tried to dampen rising expectations, emphasizing that no provisions would be final until an agreement was accepted in its entirety.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the remaining matters taken up Thursday were among the "most complex and emotion-laden" matters addressed at the summit. They included Israel's demand for repeal of the articles in the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that call for the destruction of Israel; future withdrawals of Israeli troops and transfers of territory in the West Bank; release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel; and economic issues such as the opening of a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip.

Rubin said there had been "advances" on all remaining issues, but "even a small difference" still had the potential to become an obstacle to settlement.

On one of the most contentious issues--the Israeli demand for repeal of the PLO charter articles --there were confusing contradictions.

Late Thursday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said negotiators had reached agreement on the issue. But a few hours later, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and Rubin appeared together at the summit press center to deny that a deal had been struck.

"That issue has not been resolved," Lockhart said of the charter.

Settlement of that symbolic but emotional issue could clear the way for final success of the summit.

Rubin said the attitude at the talks resembled the closing days of a legislative session, with back-room trade-offs settling issues that had been debated without success for months.

Although no one would predict whether the summit would end late Thursday or continue today, the talks were clearly in their concluding phase. At about 10 p.m. EDT, a White House official declared: "If an agreement is to come tonight, it is at least several hours away."

Jordan's King Hussein joined the talks for about 20 minutes Thursday night, urging the Israelis and Palestinians to complete their work.

The core land-for-peace bargain that Washington has advocated for most of this year was not a focus of Thursday's negotiations. Officials said that plan, calling for Israel to withdraw from an additional 13% of the West Bank in exchange for a detailed Palestinian security effort to stop terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, has apparently been accepted by both sides.

The security plan calls for the CIA to coordinate the activities of Israeli and Palestinian forces and to make sure that accused terrorists are arrested and tried by the Palestinian Authority.

But that left unresolved several emotional issues that had been pushed under the rug in the negotiations over land and security.

The PLO covenant, adopted years before the start of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, includes language calling for the destruction of Israel and establishment of a Palestinian state in its place.

The Palestine National Congress, the PLO's parliament in exile, voted several years ago to nullify the offending articles. However, Israel demanded that the congress reconvene to specifically amend the charter.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat responded that the original vote was sufficient.

Arafat is reluctant to call a meeting of the congress because it contains a number of Palestinian radicals who do not live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and because its political impact is impossible to predict.

As a compromise, Arafat agreed to convene a meeting of the PLO Central Committee two months after Israel begins its troop withdrawal, to take a preliminary vote on the amendment, the Israelis said. After the withdrawal from the 13% of the West Bank is completed, the language will be repealed by a special convention of Palestinian Authority lawmakers and members of West Bank and Gaza Strip civic organizations. That will avoid calling the full congress into session.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said President Clinton will attend the convention's final session, probably in the Gaza Strip. There was no confirmation from the White House.

U.S. officials cautioned that a few details of the overall peace accord remained to be settled and that the entire package could still fall apart.

"It is still very much up in the air about how this will go," Rubin said.

Clinton rejoined the talks Thursday morning and added a light touch to the summit by bringing his dog, Buddy. The president convened a meeting of top officials of the U.S., Israeli and Palestinian delegations that--with variations--continued for most of the rest of the day.

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