Israelis and Palestinians takes steps toward renewing peace talks

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The Independent Online

After 11 weeks of violence, Israelis and Palestinians are exploring the possibility of resuming peace negotiations, and may again call on the United States to play the role of mediator.

After 11 weeks of violence, Israelis and Palestinians are exploring the possibility of resuming peace negotiations, and may again call on the United States to play the role of mediator.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators may meet next week in Washington to discuss the conditions for renewing talks on a political settlement, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Seven years of painstaking negotiations were suspended after the fighting broke out at the end of September. Since then, 325 people have been killed, the majority of them young Palestinian men.

The two sides will have to overcome the mistrust that has been generated by worst violence since Israelis and Palestinians began regular talks in 1993.

Six Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces Friday in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Minor stone-throwing clashes took place Saturday in Hebron, on the West Bank, and the Palestinian areas remained tense.

At Saturday's funeral for Noor Abu Safi, 22, who was killed a day earlier, woman ululated and men chanted, "God is great," as the body was taken from Shifa hospital and through the streets of Gaza City.

Another Palestinian killed Friday, 17-year-old Muhammad Daoud, was to be buried Saturday near the West Bank city of Nablus.

The ongoing violence had cut high-level contacts between Israelis and Palestinians over the past month.

However, Palestinian Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami met into the early hours of Friday, and more discussions are expected in coming days.

"What we are doing now is making a joint effort to reduce the violence and create the conditions for the resumption of the negotiations," Ben-Ami told Israel television Friday night.

Ben-Ami outlined to Arafat the "red lines" Israel cannot cross in a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, the television reported. However, Israel may be willing to grant the Palestinians more land in a final deal, the television said.

The Palestinians held a Cabinet meeting late Friday, and issued a brief statement saying their demands had not changed.

"Whatever sacrifices were made by our people were made to achieve their rights ... and establish the Palestinian independent state with Jerusalem as its capital," the statement said.

A pair of looming deadlines appears to have contributed to the renewed talks.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has been the leading mediator in Mideast peace efforts, leaves office on Jan. 20. Also, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is facing a tough re-election campaign, and would like to work out a peace deal before the Feb. 6 ballot.

However, the history of Middle East peace efforts is littered with missed deadlines, and it was not clear whether the two sides could make any real progress in the current climate of violence.

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