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Israel, Palestinians Agree to Resume Peace Talks

Mideast: Albright characterizes the decision as 'a medium step' in the diplomatic process.

September 30, 1997|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — Israeli and Palestinian leaders revived their stalled peace process Monday, agreeing to resume direct talks on implementing existing accords and to start new bargaining to clear the way for negotiations over the final status of the land that both claim as their ancestral home.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who mediated the agreement between Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, said it has "arrested the downward spiral" of relations in the Middle East.

Albright characterized the agreement as "a medium step" in the diplomatic process and added that she was "more hopeful today than yesterday" over the prospects for Middle East peace.

Observers say that if both sides approach the parallel negotiations with goodwill, they could lead to a complete settlement. But in substance, the steps are little more than an agreement to talk about additional talks. The process remains extremely fragile and could be stalled again by a terrorist bomb or new Israeli settlement activity.

Levy and Abbas specifically agreed to resume talks next week in the Middle East over implementation of the peace agreement signed on the White House lawn in 1993. Those talks are expected to focus on the creation of an airport and seaport in Palestinian-controlled territory and on safe passage for Palestinians across Israel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Talks are to begin in Washington the week of Oct. 12 that focus on a much broader agenda, including:

* Continued cooperation against terrorism.

* Further redeployments of Israeli forces in the West Bank, effectively transferring more territory from Israeli to Palestinian control.

* Defining a "timeout," suggested by Albright, on provocative steps by either side.

* Acceleration to a mutually agreed target date of talks about the permanent status of the territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

On the issue that means the most to Israel, the Palestinian Authority pledged Monday to expand its cooperation with Israel on security and counterterrorism measures.

But the agreements were far more vague on matters at the top of the Palestinian wish list. Although Levy agreed to open talks on Albright's call for a "timeout" on provocative actions, he refused to commit Israel to suspend the expansion of West Bank and Gaza settlements, to stop confiscating land and to stop demolishing Palestinian homes.

Reading a statement agreed to by Levy and Abbas, Albright said: "We all recognized that security is a critical foundation for moving the peace process forward. The Israeli and Palestinian sides agreed to enhance their bilateral security cooperation in the fight against terror."

Abbas underlined the Palestinian commitment, telling reporters, "In order to guarantee the success of the endeavor, we must pave the way by stepping up our cooperation . . . in the fight against violence and terror."

According to Israeli television, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is especially pleased that the Palestinian Authority finally has started rounding up the "big fish" among the leaders of organizations blamed for suicide bombings this summer in Jerusalem that derailed the peace process. The report said that the arrests include 15 of the top 28 people whom Israel has wanted detained.

When negotiations begin next week on implementing the 1993 accords, Levy and Abbas will serve as co-chairmen of the talks, Albright said. She said that the Israelis and the Palestinians have not yet named their delegations to the negotiations in Washington the following week.

The objective of the Washington talks is to accelerate "final status" negotiations, which the 1993 accords envisioned occurring after a five-year interim period of limited Palestinian self-rule. Final status issues include whether the Palestinians will be allowed to establish an independent state, the borders of such a state, water rights and--perhaps most emotional of all--the future of Jerusalem.

Albright said that Levy and Abbas agreed that any "timeout" should last for the duration of the final status talks, which could be a year or less or could drag on for decades. But she said there was no agreement on what the timeout should encompass.

A senior U.S. official said later that--although Israel had not committed itself to a freeze on settlements, land confiscation and other measures the Palestinians regard as provocative--Israeli leaders realize that they will have to take such steps if the final status talks are to succeed.

Nevertheless, officials conceded that the Palestinians had wanted a more specific Israeli commitment on settlements than they were able to obtain.

Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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