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New Signs Emerge That Agreement with the Palestinians May Be Near

New signs have emerged that Israel and the Palestinians are close to a preliminary agreement on autonomy in the administered territories.

At the same time, Syrian President Hafez Assad has reportedly told members of his ruling Ba’ath Party that he is ready to reach a peace agreement with Israel.

These developments have raised expectations that the 11th round of bilateral peace talks, scheduled to begin in Washington next Monday or Tuesday, will achieve the kind of significant progress that all sides have long been hoping for.

For several days, Palestinian officials have been saying that they were close to an agreement with Israel on some of the issues that have divided the two sides for months.

The reports were given credence when Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was quoted in Helsinki early this week as saying that an agreement with the Palestinians was imminent.

On Wednesday, Peres reaffirmed that assessment, telling Israel Television that both parties were close to a “breakthrough.”

Peres said during the television interview that there would be three parts to an agreement with the Palestinians.

First, there would be a declaration of principles that would postpone discussion of controversial issues such as the status of Jerusalem and would instead stress existing agreements.

Second, there would be immediate implementation of a plan for Palestinian self-rule, particularly in the Gaza Strip, but also possibly in the West Bank town of Jericho. Israeli officials stress that by self-rule, they mean limited self-government, not the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Third, the agreement would include providing economic aid to the territories, which have been hard hit since the army sealed them off from Israel proper in late March, following a spate of terrorist attacks.

DIRECT CONTACTS WITH PLO?

It is not clear how this reported agreement was hammered out. But all signs indicate that Israeli officials and Palestinian representatives have been in contact in recent days.

In Washington, the State Department said Thursday that “the parties themselves are clearly engaged” in discussions of substance.

News agency reports from Jordan on Thursday quoted a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official as saying the agreement had been worked out between high-level Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

There have been numerous reports in recent days of clandestine meetings between officials of the Israeli government and the PLO.

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported earlier in the week that Peres himself had met with a high-level PLO official in Stockholm last week.

While Peres denied the report, he has stated publicly that he believes that stronger personal ties between Israeli and PLO policy-makers could hasten the reaching of an interim agreement with the Palestinians.

The optimism about the talks with the Palestinians comes amid reports of a crisis at the highest echelons of the PLO.

Two top officials of the PLO executive committee have recently resigned their posts, and there have been numerous calls from the organization’s leadership for Yasir Arafat to resign as chairman or share his decision-making powers.

The PLO executive committee was meeting Thursday in Tunis in an effort to resolve the crisis.

In Syria meanwhile, President Assad has been telling party officials that a peace agreement with Israel is near, according to a report in the respected Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

One Israeli official described the report as yet another indication of “the slow but steady process of educating the Syrian leadership that a settlement with Israel is possible.”

In its report Thursday, Ha’aretz quoted political sources in Jerusalem as saying that so far Assad has failed to define the peace in comprehensive terms, seeing it rather in terms of a state of non-belligerency.

Other observers, however, feel that Assad may have recently come to believe that a real peace agreement with Israel, rather than just a security arrangement, is necessary.

In the wake of these developments, all sides are talking about the possibility of achieving meaningful progress in the round of bilateral peace talks slated to begin next week in Washington.

“We do think that there is an opportunity now for some constructive discussion focusing in on the key issues that will help move this forward,” State Department spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

“I am not suggesting that there will be any major breakthroughs in this next round,” McCurry was careful to say.

But, he added, “we think that things are now set for there to be some significant progress.”

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