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Hopeful Sign As Israelis, PLO Begin Economic Talks in Paris

Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization officials convened here this week to begin their first formal economic talks in an effort to build a viable Palestinian administrative entity in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Meanwhile, with less than a month remaining before Israel is scheduled to begin withdrawing its troops from Gaza and Jericho, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were reporting progress in their Cairo-based talks.

Those talks, which entered their sixth round this week, focused on Israeli troop withdrawals.

In Paris, heading the economic talks, which began Tuesday, were Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shohat and the top official of the PLO economic division, Ahmed Karia, also known as Abu Alaa.

“The economy is one of the main issues of the peace process,” said Alaa. “I believe that cooperation between us based on parity and equality will create and motivate this process and will help to make a real change on the ground.”

Shohat urged the PLO to maintain close economic ties with Israel after Palestinian self-rule in the territories begins.

“Only through open and unrestricted trade can the West Bank and Gaza and Israel fulfill their potential,” he said.

“It is precisely at this moment when we have begun to remove the barriers of hatred, that we must prevent the creation of new barriers — economic or political — which could restrict future joint progress,” said Shohat.

Alaa was the PLO official who headed the secret negotiations with Israel in Oslo, Norway, that resulted in the historic agreement signed in Washington on Sept. 13. The Economic Committee was created following the Oct. 6 meeting in Cairo between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The economic talks are aimed at establishing a framework of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian authority that will administer Gaza and Jericho when Israel begins withdrawing its troops from the two regions.

That withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin Dec. 13 and to be completed by April 13, has been a source of contention between the two parties.

Two weeks ago, the Palestinians suspended the talks in the Sinai border town of Taba, saying that the Israeli proposals for troop withdrawals did not go far enough.

The talks were reconvened Nov. 8 in an undisclosed location in Cairo in an effort to conduct the negotiations away from the glare of the media spotlight.

On Tuesday, the second day of the talks in Cairo this week, Israeli as well as Palestinian sources indicated that progress had been made on the issue of security arrangements, including how Israel Defense Force troops will be redeployed after the withdrawals. No details were provided.

Also in Cairo this week, negotiators from 40 regional and overseas countries reported a first tangible breakthrough in the multilateral talks on environmental issues.

With cash subsidies provided by the World Bank, modern equipment for coping with oil spills will be bought and stored in the Jordanian port of Aqaba, for use by any of the four states bordering the Red Sea — Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — who may need it in an emergency.

Israeli sources said the United States is urging several Arab states to agree to host the next round of environmental talks in the spring.

Oman has already agreed to host the next round of the multilateral talks on water resources; Egypt will host the discussions on refugees; and Morocco will host the economics talks.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem.)

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