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Palestinians Want to Delay Next Round of Peace Talks : Mideast: Delegation to negotiations cites Israeli deportations. But U.S. officials say they aren't prepared to meet any new demands and urge parties to meet as scheduled.


WASHINGTON — Palestinian representatives said Friday they want to delay the next round of the Middle East peace talks, scheduled to begin Tuesday, until Israel agrees to expedite the return of Palestinian deportees and ease restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

U.S. officials, caught by surprise, replied that Palestinian interests would be served best if the talks, in recess since last December, resumed as planned.

The officials also said they did not consider the Palestinian bid for postponement the last word because the matter must be discussed by Arab League foreign ministers who are meeting in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

U.S. officials deliberately kept their public remarks brief and restrained while they awaited a decision by the Arab ministers, expected to be announced in Damascus today.

But in private, many said angrily that the Palestinian delegation leader, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, did not speak of seeking a delay when he met with senior State Department officials on Wednesday.

The officials also said the Palestinians now are making demands that neither the United States nor Israel is prepared to meet in advance of resumed talks, and they added that if the Palestinians hold to their new position, the peace process is likely to stall indefinitely.

When he visited the Middle East in February, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that if the parties to the peace process did not demonstrate their seriousness about getting down to substantive negotiations, the Clinton Administration would have to consider downgrading the priority it attaches to the peace process.

Delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said the Palestinians want a delay because the consultations this week "have not been able to remove all the obstacles" to resumed talks.

She said that the Palestinians want the United States, as sponsor of the peace process, to pressure Israel to allow return of all Palestinian deportees in southern Lebanon and to forswear future deportations.

She said that Israel must be forced to lift what she called "the state of siege" and "economic blockade" it has imposed on the occupied territories.

In response to mounting attacks on Israelis by Arab extremists, Israel two weeks ago barred Palestinians in the territories from entering Israel proper, causing hardship for Palestinians who normally work in Israel and cutting their ties to Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel has indicated that it plans to offer some concessions, but only if the Palestinians show up for the talks. President Clinton and Christopher have said the United States does not intend to press Israel for additional gestures toward the deportees.

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