Israelis, Palestinians discuss settlement

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israel and the Palestinians appeared close to resolving the 35-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity, but were still at odds Monday on how many Palestinian gunmen would be removed from the shrine and sent into exile.

Palestinian sources said Yasser Arafat was having difficulty giving the final go-ahead to the deportations -- a sensitive issue among Palestinians, millions of whom already live in exile -- and was trying to minimize the numbers of those to be deported.

The CIA, the Vatican and the European Union were all involved in efforts to end the confrontation at one of Christendom's holiest sites.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would like to have a deal completed so he can focus on other issues when he meets President Bush at the White House on Tuesday. Sharon, who arrived in Washington Monday, contends no Mideast peace agreement is possible with Arafat, and is seeking Bush's support for that position.

The Palestinians want no more than eight gunmen holed up inside the church to be sent into exile in Italy. Israel is insisting on deporting 13, according to Palestinian officials who requested anonymity.

Israeli tanks and snipers ring the compound. But as darkness fell Monday, so did the silence save for the brief rumbling of a tank which patrolled along the stone streets of Manger Square -- the large, plaza lined with shops and trees located in front of the church.

Under the current proposals, 30 or so other Palestinian militiamen would be sent to the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinians.