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Sweating the details in Mideast

Barak and Arafat to meet today in Egypt. But Palestinian refugee status a peace obstacle.

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Almost everyone seems to agree that Israelis and Palestinians have never been closer to a peace deal. But are they close enough?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has signaled that he is more or less ready to go along with the outlines of the deal President Clinton sketched out over the weekend. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hasn't shown his hand, but is asking for more information on the Clinton plan.

"This holiday is decisive," Mr. Arafat said yesterday, the beginning of the Muslim celebration called Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. "With God's help, it will lead to a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl raising the flag of Palestine over the walls of Jerusalem," he said.

The holiday triple crown - Christians and Jews are also celebrating holy days this December - is already paying a peace dividend: No one has died as a result of Israeli-Palestinian violence since Dec. 23.

Arafat and Mr. Barak were expected to meet today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a seaside resort in Egypt, and perhaps sit down one-on-one - the first such summit since violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians in late September. More that 350 people have died in 90 days, the most recent victims of a conflict that has lasted a century.

US officials expect the two leaders to reply to Clinton by tomorrow. A joint decision to go ahead would lead to intensive negotiations to finalize a peace deal, perhaps by the end of the Clinton presidency, but in all likelihood before Mr. Barak has to contest an election on Feb. 6.

Israelis - particularly those of the left-wing, dovish variety - say that a long-awaited historic compromise is at hand. "There's really a sense that this could be it," says Gershon Baskin, a longtime peace proponent who is the co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.

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