Middle East: Effort to restart Palestine peace talks

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The Independent Online
Israel and the Palestinians head back to the negotiating table in Washington today, with Israel saying "practical progress" can be made but the Palestinians gloomy that it is evading any real issues. "We will take part in the talks, despite the fact that they have no chance," Yasser Arafat was quoted as saying in the Israeli Maariv newspaper.

The talks will be convened under the stern eye of the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who wants Israel to commit itself to a "time out" in settlement expansion and who is also reportedly pushing for a commitment on the date and scope of an Israeli troop withdrawal from rural West Bank land.

But the Palestinians say they fear the Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, leading the delegation, is not authorised to negotiate on those issues. "He can hold talks all day long, but your Cabinet didn't empower him to do a thing," Mr Arafat told Maariv.

The talks were held up for a week while the government debated the positions Mr Levy would take. On Wednesday the Cabinet authorised him to fly to Washington for the talks. The foreign ministry said he was "empowered by the Cabinet to talk about all the issues on the agenda," including a time-out and West Bank withdrawal. A government spokesman said Israel was looking for "practical progress" in areas such as the opening of a Palestinian airport and seaport in the Gaza Strip, called for in the existing Israel-Palestinian agreements but not yet implemented.

An Arafat adviser, Ahmed Tibi, said the Palestinians would concentrate on settlement activity and the Israeli redeployment - "in other words, the issue of land" - at the Washington talks, and that all other issues were secondary.

If there is no progress on those issues, he told Israel's Army Radio, "the talks are doomed to failure, and we will get sucked into a whirlpool, into the dynamic of a resurgent crisis." - AP