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US hosts talks to aid Middle East

THE MIDDLE East roadshow returns to Washington today with the opening of two international conferences, one on economic assistance for the Palestinians, and the other on Holocaust-era assets - gold, art, and money looted from the Jews by Nazi Germany.

The conferences come five weeks after the Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Wye Agreement, undertaking to put back on track implementation of the five-year-old Oslo peace accord. They are seen as a way that the outside world, especially the United States and Europe, can help to foster a durable peace.

The Palestinian conference, to be attended by representatives of several dozen countries, including Israel, is presented by officials in Washington as a by-product of the Wye talks. But the timing remains a mystery. The first, and only, such conference was held five years ago, and the US State Department says, simply, it was felt that the time was right for another.

Unofficially, there is speculation that the US-sponsored attempt to attract more international aid for the Palestinians is a reward from Washington to Yasser Arafat for stalling on his threatened declaration of Palestinian statehood.

The State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said the one-day conference would review progress since that first meeting, assess the "further development needs" of the West Bank and Gaza and call for "enhanced levels of assistance". The US is expected to double its financial assistance to an annual sum of $150m (pounds 93.75m) although that is paltry compared with the $4bn package promised by the European Union.

While the conference will enjoy a high profile - Mr Arafat arrived in Washington over the weekend, and President Clinton is to give the opening address - the bulk of outside financial assistance to the Palestinians so far has been attached to specific projects, such as the airport opened in Gaza last week.

The second conference, to be attended by representatives of more than 50 nations, is the follow-up to the London conference on Nazi gold held a year ago. The focus this time will be broader and will include the tracking and restitution of confiscated art, insurance policies held by Holocaust victims, and trying to co-ordinate the work of charitable efforts. One aim, said Stuart Eizenstadt, Under- Secretary of State, is to "come as close as possible to completing a historical record before the end of the millennium".

Any suggestion that the timing of the two conferences is not coincidental is dismissed by State Department officials in Washington with horror. But the juxtaposition suggests a concern in Washington to be seen as more even-handed between the Israelis and the Palestinians than in the past.

As if to reinforce this, the White House has released the outline itinerary of President Clinton's future tour of the region. He will visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza to become the first US leader to address the Palestinian assembly.

t Israeli warplanes struck suspected Palestinan guerrilla bases in southern Lebanon for the second consecutive day to avenge attacks on Israeli outposts, Lebanese security officials said. There was no immediate word on casualties.