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Israel, Palestinians to Meet Amid Hope of Reviving Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a small but potentially significant step toward reviving the moribund peace process, Israel and the Palestinian leadership said Sunday that they expect a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright today to lead to renewed talks.

The peace process has been stalled for six months over Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Palestinians’ failure to prevent Islamic suicide bombers from attacking Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians’ “preliminary steps in the war against terrorism” had moved him to consider a resumption of so-called committee talks on implementing existing peace agreements, and to release $17 million in frozen tax revenues owed the Palestinians. That is about half the amount Israel is withholding from the Palestinian Authority as a punitive measure after multiple suicide attacks in Jerusalem this summer.

In July, the two sides had agreed to restart committee talks just before two bombers blew themselves up in Jerusalem’s central market. Netanyahu called off the meeting in response to the July 30 attack.

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Albright is scheduled to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas in New York, where both sides appear to be looking for a face-saving way to return to the bargaining table.

Netanyahu appeared guardedly optimistic about the possibility of renewing committee-level talks, although he and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat quickly dug in to their old positions.

“We want to go forward in the process and we will progress, but he [Arafat] must fight the terrorism,” Netanyahu said on Israel Television. “There is a change in the past few days. I think something has moved.”

Arafat countered, “What is important is that Israel fulfill the commitments it agreed to . . . and that the closure be lifted.”

Israel has maintained a nearly continuous military closure of the West Bank since the Mahane Yehuda market bombings. The closure, which prevents Palestinians from entering Israel or traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was partially lifted for a few days only to be resumed after three more suicide bombers attacked a pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem on Sept. 4.

Twenty-five people, including the five bombers, died in the summer attacks.

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Netanyahu had said he would not resume negotiations until Arafat cracked down on Islamic militants who oppose the peace process. In recent days, the Palestinian Authority has closed more than a dozen Islamic social service organizations in the Gaza Strip and arrested dozens of alleged members of the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

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On Sunday, Hamas’ military wing, Iziddin al-Qassam, issued a new threat against Israel for what it says was an attempt by the Mossad--Israel’s equivalent of the CIA--to assassinate a Hamas political leader in Jordan.

Hamas blames the Mossad for a bizarre assault Thursday allegedly committed by two Canadian tourists against Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal apparently was attacked with a chemical substance and is said to be in stable condition with respiratory problems.

“I know of no conflict between Hamas and Canada,” said Abdel Aziz Rontizi, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “It was the Mossad.”

The Jordanian government originally denied that the attack on Meshaal had taken place but was forced to admit it over the weekend under pressure from the Jordanian press, which suggested that King Hussein was acting as an apologist for Israel. The Jewish state has a peace agreement with Jordan, but the relationship is not popular among the Palestinian majority there.

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Jordanian officials now say the case is under investigation, and Israeli officials deny any involvement in the attack. But Hamas was not waiting for official reports. The group said Israel would “pay dearly” for the attack.

Israeli security forces have been warning of further suicide attacks in response to the Palestinian crackdown and to the move by Jewish settlers into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud this month. They also note that Hamas may want to mark the one-year anniversary of clashes between Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers after Israel opened a new tunnel door in Jerusalem’s disputed Old City.

If no further attacks take place, the committee talks are expected to go forward and U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross is expected to travel to the Middle East in the coming week to take part in them.

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The issues the committees are to discuss include the opening of a Gaza international airport and commercial seaport; “safe passage” between the West Bank and Gaza; and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. These measures have been agreed upon in principle, but the two sides have been unable to come to terms on implementation.

Arafat spokesman Marwan Kanafani called Israel’s apparent decision to resume the talks “positive” but added, “It is impossible to continue negotiations without reaching a solution concerning the Israeli settlement policy.”

Last week, Netanyahu announced plans to build hundreds more homes in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and other Jewish settlements in the area that Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast War.

His statement was a rejection of Albright’s call for a “timeout” in settlement expansion; such building is seen by the Palestinians as Israel’s attempt to preempt “final status” negotiations.

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The current stalemate began in March when Netanyahu approved the groundbreaking for a new 6,500-unit Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Construction is underway in the neighborhood on a hill Israelis call Har Homa and Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghneim.


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