Peres Peace Center Opens Amid Reports of Small Moves Forward

They came to urge Middle East peace at a time when the once fast-paced negotiations have slowed to a crawl.

Some 140 foreign dignitaries gathered Monday in Tel Aviv for the dedication of the Peres Center for Peace.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, 74, received a standing ovation when he told the gathering that there was a “profound desire by the Israeli people to return to peace.”

“We are together in a serious attempt to make peace a reality in this troubled and suffering region,” he said of the center, which will work to advance joint Israeli-Palestinian economic projects.

Uri Savir, the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who served as the first Israeli official to negotiate with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993, will serve as the center’s first director.

The ceremony took place as U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross was making his latest attempt to nudge the stalled peace process forward.

It also came just days before a senior defense official, who served as a former coordinator of government activities in the territories, was expected to propose a two-state solution for breaking the present impasse in negotiations.

Maj. Gen. Oren Shahor, who attended the center’s dedication, was slated to propose the creation of a Palestinian state when he addresses a Peace Now luncheon Monday in Washington, according to sources with the dovish organization.

In January, Shahor was removed from the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians after it was disclosed that he had held unauthorized meetings with Israeli opposition leaders to update them on the status of the talks.

Shahor, now involved with the Labor Party, then left the IDF — after 32 years of service.

The center’s first project is slated to be an industrial park on between Israel and the Gaza Strip, a move that could provide an estimated 50,000 jobs for Palestinians.

Speakers at Monday’s opening ceremony repeatedly referred to the bleak state of the current state of affairs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was conspicuously absent from the ceremony.

But other members of his government — including Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — were present, as were President Ezer Weizman and several Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian officials.

Also in attendance was former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who spoke of the gap between the dreams of Oslo and the present facts.

Israeli-Palestinian relations “have eroded alarmingly,” he said.

Ross, who also attended the ceremony, arrived in Israel on Sunday, when he began shuttling between the two sides.

Some progress was reported. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy was reported saying that Israel would limit settlement construction to a “necessary minimum.”

The two sides also appeared close to agreeing on opening a Palestinian airport in Gaza.

This week’s round of meetings were preparations for further discussions next week in Washington, where Foreign Minister David Levy is expected to meet with Ross and Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who serves as deputy to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Hours before the dedication ceremony of the center, dozens of guests attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to Prime Yitzhak Rabin that was erected on the steps of the Tel Aviv Municipality, the site of his assassination in November 1995.

“Welcome to this sad place,” said Leah Rabin, the premier’s widow.

“They killed the leader, but they will not manage to kill the spirit,” Peres said.

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