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Mideast Peace Process Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Hurdles on the road to peace
US Secretary of State Albright and Palestinian leader Arafat
US Secretary of State Albright and a gloomy Yasser Arafat in Oslo
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The election of Ehud Barak as Israel's new prime minister in May 1999 raised hopes in the region and far beyond its borders that a permanent peace with the Arabs could finally be achieved.

Netanyahu out: Many saw a chance for peace
Almost immediately there was an abundance of positive signs that progress would be made on all peace tracks - Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese - after three years of near atrophy during the premiership of hardline right-winger Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

But negotiations have hit hurdles on all tracks.

Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon has left many issues unresolved, and changed the bargaining dynamic between Israel and Syria.

Early hope

The process did seem to take on new vigour at first. For the Palestinians there was a new agreement which guaranteed long-awaited Israeli military "redeployments" from parts of the West Bank and a timetable for final status negotiations towards a permanent peace settlement.
Back on track?
Wye II deal (September)
Syria and Israeli talks (December-January)
Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon (by July 2000)
Syria, Israel's arch rival for many years, also re-entered negotiations, at the highest level ever, under United States mediation.

And Mr Barak promised a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, in the hope of pulling the plug once and for all on the last and most destructive active Arab-Israeli battle front.

'Final status' talks

So can the Israelis and Palestinians reach a final settlement before a mutually-agreed deadline of September 2000, and will an orderly Israeli withdrawal from the occupied parts of Syria and Lebanon bring peace between Israel and all its neighbours?

February 2000: Lebanon under fire
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have embarked on what is meant to be the last phase of negotiations on some of the thorniest issues in the Middle East peace process.

Talks on the final status of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip - supposed to be the last chapter of the Palestinian track which began in Oslo in 1993 - got underway in November 1999.

The issues set aside for these discussions were supposed to be ones so sensitive they could only be addressed after an extended "interim" period of confidence building trade-offs.

Trade-offs included, principally, Palestinian recognition of Israel and its security needs in return for a rolling back of Israeli military rule and the establishment of the institutions of an embryonic Palestinian state.
Final status talks
Palestinian sovereignty and statehood
Future of Jerusalem
Jewish settlements
Palestinian refugees
But the interim period has been so painfully slow, with so few benefits on the ground, that very little confidence-building has gone on.

As for the final status issues, Mr Barak, who - like every post-Oslo Israeli leader before him - holds the whip hand when it comes to dealing with Yasser Arafat, has ruled out many of the objectives which the Palestinians say are essential for lasting peace.

Israel will not pull back to the 1967 borders, when it captured the West Bank and Gaza; it will not dismantle the main Jewish settlements on the occupied land; Mr Barak does not foresee a return of Palestinian refugees "under any circumstance"; Jerusalem, which includes annexed East Jerusalem, will remain Israel's exclusive property for ever.
Wye II deal restarted Israeli withdrawals from West Bank
The first deadline for final status talks - a framework agreement for the peace treaty by mid-February - has already lapsed. This makes the September deadline for signing a deal looks highly optimistic.

Meanwhile, the last Israeli withdrawal under the Wye II interim agreement bringing full or partial Palestinian control to 40% of the West Bank was only carried out - two months late on 21 March - after weeks of acrimonious deadlock.

Syrian moves

Syria and Israel began talking again in Washington in December 1999, after nearly four years of tension and instability.

This was a major breakthrough, with Mr Barak at the head of the Israeli delegation and Syria being represented by Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

The December talks paved the way to a week of face-to-face meetings at various levels in the bucolic surroundings of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
December 1999: Syria and Israel back at the table
At the core of the process was the establishment of four committees dealing with specific issues: the restoration of diplomatic relations, the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, security and monitoring arrangements, and sharing water resources.

But talks have ended with an indefinite postponement after disagreement broke out, apparently over the "level of priority" to be given each of these issues.

Israel's failure to secure the agreement of Syria before it withdrew its forces from Lebanon have further complicated relations.

Israel is worried about possible cross-border attacks by Hezbollah fighters, while Syria has had its main negotiating chip in discussions on withdrawal from the Golan Heights removed.

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