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Israel, Palestinians to resume peace talks with U.S. assistance

NEW YORK, Sept. 29 (JTA) – U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first to admit that it was only a “medium step forward.” After six months of suspended negotiations, during which violence and recriminations prevailed, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will return to work next week, she announced Monday. The Israeli-Palestinian joint liaison committee, chaired by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian Authority second-in- command, Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, will begin meeting Oct. 6. On the agenda will be discussion of a “timeout” that would require both sides to refrain from unilateral steps regarded as impediments to the peace process, such as Israel’s building more homes in West Bank settlements, Albright said. Also on the agenda will be discussion of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and further redeployments of Israeli forces from rural West Bank areas, she said. The two sides will also discuss outstanding issues stemming from the 1995 Interim Agreement, including the opening of a Palestinian airport in Gaza, the building of a Palestinian seaport and the creation of a safe route for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. Committees discussing those issues were set to resume in July, but those talks were postponed after suicide bombers struck Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market July 30, killing 15 Israelis. Tensions escalated further after a Sept. 4 triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem left five Israelis dead. Albright found the peace process in tatters when she visited the Middle East the following week, and she warned both Israel and the Palestinians that she would not return to the region unless both sides took steps to revive the trust needed to resume peace talks. “There had been a downward spiral and a crisis of confidence,” she said. “We have not only arrested the downward spiral, but have taken a step forward” was how she described her meetings Monday with Levy and Abu Mazen at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Levy and Abu Mazen, who were originally expected to appear with Albright at the news conference, were not present. U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross will go to the region to help relaunch negotiations, she said. “There is a great sense of willingness to work together and a desire to get the peace process back on track.”