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Peace Talks Reconvene in Washington Amid Expectations of a Breakthrough

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The 11th round of Middle East peace talks has begun here amid high expectations for a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track and possibly significant progress on other fronts as well.

The assumption here is that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank city of Jericho will be signed by the two sides within the next couple of weeks.

Progress is also expected on the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiating track.

In the wake of historic news from the Middle East that the Israeli Cabinet had approved an agreement worked out over the past few weeks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, an almost palpable air of excitement surrounded the State Department on Tuesday as Israeli and Arab negotiators arrived to begin their new round of meetings.

As they came in and out of the State Department, where the talks are talking place, the negotiators uttered far more optimistic statements than they had in previous rounds.

Israel has been involved in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan since the fall of 1991, but to date little substantive progress has been made.

The Clinton administration had warned the parties that it would have to see significant advances made before the end of 1993 if it were to remain deeply involved in the process.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who has been shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals this summer in an effort to achieve progress, welcomed the Israeli-PLO plan on Tuesday.

“We strongly support the agreement. I believe it is a conceptual breakthrough,” Christopher said at a photo opportunity Tuesday morning.

He added that he would like to see the agreement formalized at an early date.

The secretary of state also said that the United States had not changed its own policy of not talking directly to the PLO, but added that “this is a rapidly changing environment.”

POSITIVE SIGNALS FROM SYRIA

Itamar Rabinovich, who serves in the dual capacity of Israel’s ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with the Syrians, said he thought the Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be signed within the next two weeks.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, appearing Tuesday morning on the ABC-TV program “Good Morning America,” called the Gaza-Jericho plan a “good beginning” to a larger process of Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

Ashrawi, one of the Palestinians who threatened to resign in early August over differences of opinion with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, said that if the agreement “were only to be limited to Gaza and Jericho, I would be the first to oppose it.”

Although the focus was on the Israeli-Palestinian talks Tuesday, there were also hopes for movement on the Israeli-Syrian track.

Rabinovich told reporters Tuesday that he thought an Israeli-Syrian declaration of principles could be signed within the next two negotiating rounds.

Earlier in the day, Rabinovich said that Israel had a sense, based on Christopher’s mission to the Middle East, that the Syrians have changed their perceptions of what is required for an agreement to be reached.

Israelis now believe that the Syrians “understand that for what they demand, more than non-belligerency is required — that a peace or a full peace is a requisite for the type of massive concessions that they require from us,” Rabinovich said.

The Syrian track had been stalled in previous rounds as the Israelis waited for Damascus to define how far-reaching a peace accord it was prepared to strike with Jerusalem. The Syrians, in turn, waited for Israel to specify the extent to which it was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

But on Tuesday, Syrian chief negotiator Mowaffak al-Allaf told reporters that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks could have a positive effect on other negotiating tracks as well.

“I believe any genuine progress on any track should affect positively the other tracks because, as you know, all tracks are interdependent,” Allaf said, in a statement that was welcomed in Jerusalem.

PROTESTS OUTSIDE STATE DEPT

Israelis had been concerned that a cool reaction from Damascus to the Israeli-PLO agreement could set back progress on the Syrian track.

There was also concern that Jordan might take a negative view of the self-rule agreement. Jordanian negotiator Fayez Tarawneh said Tuesday that Jordan still had to “look into the matter” further.

One negative note was struck by Uri Lubrani, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Lebanese, who emerged from his morning meetings Tuesday saying that the positive momentum on the other tracks had not carried over into his talks.

Lebanese negotiator Souheil Chammas said after Tuesday’s meetings that he had asked Lubrani whether the recent Israeli operation in southern Lebanon met the goal of trying to achieve peace.

“Lebanon cannot be a free game for the Israeli military might,” Chammas said.

While the negotiators convened Tuesday inside the State Department, demonstrators staged protests outside the building.

A group of approximately 20 protesters from the militant Kahane Chai organization sat down in the driveway of the main C Street entrance to the building, chanting “Rabin is a traitor,” and “No retreat from Jewish land.”

Around the corner at the 23rd Street entrance, where the Syrian negotiators come in and out for their talks, another group staged a protest calling attention to the plight of Syrian Jews.

About 150 demonstrators from a variety of groups, including the National Task Force on Syrian Jewry, marched up and down the sidewalk shouting, “Let our people go.”

The demonstrators said they hoped to encourage Syria to let more Jews leave the country.

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