New Mideast Talks Begin As US Urges Progress

New negotiations are set to go nearly around the clock; but Palestinians think Israel will talk around issues too

Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks aimed at reviving the flagging Mideast peace process yesterday amid continuing mistrust and the threat of more violence if talks fail.

Underlining the American stake in their success, Secretary of State Warren Christopher met separately yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat just hours before the talks began.

Mr. Christopher - who stopped in the region on his way to a long-scheduled trip in Africa - said he would reinforce US expectations for "the importance of significant progress, the urgency of it, and especially a reminder of their commitment that they would become personally involved if progress wasn't made."

Palestinian officials say they are worried that the Israelis are only taking part to prevent the process from crumbling further, instead of looking for ways to advance peace.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat met in Washington last week for a two-day emergency summit with President Clinton in an effort to salvage the US-brokered peace deal, which was in tatters after Israeli-Palestinian violence left more than 70 dead.

Veteran US Mideast coordinator Dennis Ross is facilitating the talks at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza. And the European Union - frustrated by US dominance in the peace process and requested by Arafat to play a role - sent Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring.

Palestinian negotiators made clear they would hold the right-wing Netanyahu to promises he would stick to commitments made by the previous Israeli government.

These include the delayed withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron - where 450 Jewish settlers live amid more than 100,000 Arabs - and the beginning of "final status" talks on contentious issues such as Jerusalem and expansion of Jewish settlement in Arab areas.

Returning to Gaza for the first time since the US summit, Arafat told a noisy crowd of supporters they would have to "wait and see" if there would be progress. "We are not asking for the moon, and we gave a new chance for peace," he said.

Peace talks or ploy?

Most Palestinians, however, see the talks as an Israeli ploy for time to renegotiate points already agreed. Netanyahu has held fast to hard-line policies that rule out a Palestinian state, exchanging land-for-peace with Arabs, and closing a tunnel in Jerusalem adjacent to the Al-Aqsa mosque that sparked last week's violence.

"We will not renegotiate the agreement," said Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Israeli forces over the weekend have withdrawn tanks around some Palestinian-controlled West Bank towns - moving them just out of sight - and eased restrictions on travel. A curfew in Hebron was lifted Sunday, after 11 days.

But Netanyahu has vowed never to close the controversial Jerusalem tunnel, and Israel is expected to demand that Palestinian police who will deploy in Hebron be armed only with pistols, and not assault rifles.

Pressure from the right

Right-wing Israeli critics assert that arming the Palestinian police caused the deaths among Israeli forces during gun battles last week. The West Bank and Gaza, they say - which Israel took over in 1967 after a war with Arab states - belong within Israel's Biblical borders and should never be given to Palestinians.

"Even this peace agreement, we didn't really get a lot out of it," says one elderly man in Gaza, whose son was killed by Israeli soldiers during the 1987-93 Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. "But we want to finish with it. Even with this very bad peace agreement, we are willing to accept it."

Amr Moussa, Egypt's foreign minister, voiced Arab concerns about the slow progress: "Pessimism is the prevailing feeling in the area. The Washington talks, the decision to resume negotiations, the presence of the American side ... all that behooves the Israelis to move and change their negative posture," he said. "If not, then it will be indeed a very, very serious situation."

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