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Israel, Palestinians to Meet in U.S. for Resumed Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel and the Palestinians agreed Wednesday to hold intensified peace talks in Washington later this month, ending five weeks of impasse that had threatened to destroy any hope of reaching a final peace deal by a September deadline.

The breakthrough came after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat held their second face-to-face meeting in less than 14 hours in an effort to rebuild trust damaged by the deadlocked negotiations and by a spate of angry words from officials on both sides.

Israel later announced that Barak and Arafat will hold a summit today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, where they signed an interim accord in September that laid out a yearlong timetable for reaching a permanent peace treaty. Mubarak has joined U.S. officials lately in urging the two leaders to make progress.

The crisis has marked the lowest point in relations between Israel and the Palestinians since Barak’s election 10 months ago, and both sides have warned that the impasse could lead to renewed violence.

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Underlining the concern, Israeli commandos last week foiled what police described as a plan by the militant Islamic Hamas group to carry out a series of bombings against Israeli civilian targets. Four members of the group were killed and a fifth arrested in Taibeh, northeast of Tel Aviv, but Israeli security forces have remained on high alert, warning of the likelihood of further attacks.

Barak and Arafat resumed talks late Tuesday with a surprise meeting in central Israel. Wednesday’s meeting took place at a hotel in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank town of Ramallah, and U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross, who arrived back in the region just Tuesday night, emerged from it to announce that the leaders had decided to restart formal negotiations.

Ross told reporters that the parties had “made good progress in addressing and resolving many of the interim issues, and agreed to intensify their negotiations.” He said the talks will resume in Washington after the four-day Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which begins next Thursday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin sought to lower expectations for the new round of negotiations, saying progress is not guaranteed.

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“It’s our view that this is the best way to give a kick-start to the process,” Rubin said. “But we recognize that it’s an extraordinarily difficult process and even a good kick-start may not get it going.”

The negotiations have progressed only fitfully in recent months and broke off completely in early February in disputes over the scope and timing of two more Israeli troop pullbacks from the West Bank.

After Wednesday’s session, officials close to the talks said they could not spell out the details of the proposals--evidently conveyed by Ross--that broke the deadlock. Before specifics could be released, the two sides needed to hold further discussions at today’s Sharm el Sheik summit, one official said.

“Everything will be clear at that point,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We hope to be able to conclude it then.”

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But according to various accounts of the Barak-Arafat meetings, the two sides appear to have agreed in large part on a new timetable aimed at allowing them to try to meet the ambitious target of wrapping up a permanent peace treaty by Sept. 13.

But that will be extremely difficult. It means resolving in the next six months the thorniest issues at the heart of their conflict, including Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, borders, water and the status of Jerusalem.

The parties missed a Feb. 13 deadline for hammering out a blueprint for that final treaty, and the Palestinians then suggested that negotiators should stop talking about the preliminary document and move immediately to the comprehensive agreement. But Israel demurred, and on Wednesday the two sides agreed to a new target date of May for the framework accord, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told reporters.


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