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Mideast talks resume Sunday

Negotiators aim to secure accord by mid-September

SHARE Mideast talks resume Sunday

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators plan to meet Sunday to resume efforts to secure a peace agreement by mid-September, officials from both sides said Thursday.

Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said separately they hoped an agreement could be reached soon, despite the collapse of 15 days of peace talks at Camp David on Tuesday.

"I would say that definitely yes, it's possible to finish the conflict and reach a reasonable agreement in not too long a time so long as there is talk between the sides," Sher told Israel Radio.

He said Israeli negotiator Oded Eran was expected to meet Erekat on Sunday. He gave no details of what they would discuss, but the talks appeared intended mainly to keep contacts open rather than continue substantive negotiations at this stage.

Erekat said the Camp David summit had brought the sides closer than ever to an agreement to end 52 years of conflict.

"We will continue the negotiations in good faith in the hope of achieving a comprehensive agreement on all issues no later than Sept. 13," he told a news conference.

Sept. 13 is the deadline the two sides have imposed for agreeing a peace deal and is also the Palestinians' deadline for declaring an independent state.

The Camp David summit between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which was mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton, broke down over the future of Jerusalem, although progress was made on other issues.

Palestinians want full sovereignty in Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the independent state they plan to declare. Israelis say Jerusalem is their indivisible, eternal capital.

Barak and Arafat returned home on Wednesday saying they had not betrayed national interests at the summit and made clear they were still unwilling to compromise on certain issues.

Arafat said in an interview with Saudi Arabia's English-language Saudi Gazette newspaper that he would continue talks. The declaration of a Palestinian state "begins to take shape from September 13," he added.

Barak returned home to a host of political problems, including a no-confidence vote in parliament on Monday.

He lost his majority in parliament when three coalition parties quit his government July 9 for fear he would concede too much to the Palestinians.

Failure to reach a deal by September 13 could prompt Arafat to declare the Palestinian state without Israel's agreement, a potentially explosive scenario which could end in confrontation.

U.S. officials, fearful that violence could erupt, want the two sides to resume talks quickly and say envoy Dennis Ross will visit the region for consultations if progress seems possible. They have not ruled out holding another summit.

Israel's neighbor, Jordan, also hopes a deal can be reached by September 13.

"The few weeks that separate us from September 13 are crucial and we hope that the negotiations will be intensified to build on what has been negotiated at Camp David," Foreign Minister Abdulilah al-Khatib told reporters in Amman.

Arafat faces huge pressure not to bend on Jerusalem. About 30 Palestinians protested outside the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem on Thursday against what they called U.S. pressure for Arafat to compromise on Jerusalem. No clashes were reported.

Barak must now try to rebuild a coalition and one option is to try to bring his rivals into a broad "unity coalition."

He was due to meet former general Ariel Sharon, the leader of the main opposition Likud party, in Tel Aviv late on Thursday. But a Likud spokesman poured cold water on the speculation that they would forge a unity government.

"I do not see him making a clear proposal to the Likud at this time," said Zalman Shoval, Likud's foreign relations chief.