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Baker Tells Congressional Panel the Ball is Now in Israel’s Court

Secretary of State James Baker said Thursday that the United States has done all it can to advance the peace process in the Middle East, and that it is now up to Israel to take the next step.

“We’ve really done pretty much all we can do, we think, from our end, and we are awaiting a response from the Israeli government,” Baker told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Israel’s four top ministers, known as the Forum of Four, are expected to meet Friday to decide how to respond to Baker’s intention of holding a trilateral meeting with Israel and Egypt as the next step in the process.

Baker’s remarks came a day after John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told Congress he expects such a meeting to occur within the month.

Earlier in the week, another State Department Middle East expert questioned whether Israel and the Palestinians are committed to making the tough choices needed to advance current peace efforts.

“In our view, the question right now is essentially whether the parties themselves have the political will to continue in the process,” said Peter Eicher, deputy director of the department’s Office of Egyptian Affairs.

Eicher spoke at a panel discussion on “Palestine: The Peace Process,” sponsored by the National Association of Arab Americans.

The Bush administration is on the “verge” of receiving decisions from Egypt and Israel on whether to attend a trilateral meeting with Baker, said Eicher. That meeting would pave the way for the first Palestinian-Israeli talks to take place.

The United States has devised “a simple agenda” for Palestinian-Israeli talks “which focuses on elections and practical progress but which allows each side the opportunity to state its views on the entire range of issues with which the parties may have to be dealing,” Eicher said.

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