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Peres Concludes Warm Meetings with Christopher, Aspin and Gore

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres appears to have cemented close working relations with the Clinton administration as Secretary of State Warren Christopher undertakes his first diplomatic mission to the Middle East.

Peres met separately Tuesday with Christopher, Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Vice President Albert Gore in sessions both sides characterized as warm and friendly.

Prior to his meeting with Peres, Christopher told reporters that the foreign minister’s visit “gives me the opportunity to reinforce the longstanding and unstinting commitment the United States has to our very special relationship with Israel.”

“It’s a relationship,” the secretary added, “that will affect my trip to the region.”

The meeting came a day before the start of Christopher’s scheduled visit to the Middle East, during which time he hopes to encourage parties to return to the stalled Middle East peace talks.

But perhaps in an effort to dampen expectations, Christopher told reporters Tuesday that he would not expect an immediate resumption of the negotiations.

“I would not expect that to happen during the course of my trip,” he said. “I hope that subsequently the peace process can be restarted.”

In recent days, State Department officials have been meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab officials to convince the various parties to return to the peace table.

NO MORE CONCESSIONS SOUGHT

But most of the arm-twisting at this point appears to be directed at the Arabs.

Peres said he did not feel Christopher would push Israel for “more concessions” at this point. What the secretary “wanted, he got already,” the foreign minister told reporters Tuesday, during an appearance at the National Press Club.

Peres was referring to the compromise hammered out between Washington and Jerusalem recently in which Israel has agreed to allow the immediate return of 101 of the Palestinians it deported to Lebanon in December. The rest would be allowed back before the end of the year.

The U.N. Security Council gave its tacit approval to the deal last Friday, but the Palestinians balked and are refusing to return to the peace talks until all of the deportees are returned to the administered territories.

Peres said he would expect the Arabs “to follow the advice of the Security Council and come back to the negotiations.” But he conceded that the Palestinians are “still reluctant” to do so.

The foreign minister spoke positively of his meetings with the American officials, saying that he and Gore had found a “common language” during their meetings, and that he found Aspin’s views on defense strategies to be “very close” to Israeli views.

“On most of the issues,” Peres said, he felt “at home.” He said he found the warmth of his reception “reassuring.”

The Middle East leg of Christopher’s trip runs from Wednesday to Feb. 24, and will cover Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Israel.

A State Department spokesperson said that the trip is an effort to “invigorate” the peace process and to “listen hard” to what the Arabs and Israelis are saying.

“The bottom –line,” the spokesperson said, “is that it’s their peace, it’s their interests. We hope to hear that they’re willing to compromise,” and that the discussions during the trip do not consist merely of “rhetoric on both sides.”

If the parties are “not serious,” the spokesperson said, then President Clinton and Christopher “will spend their time profitably” elsewhere.

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