Israel, Palestinians Disagree over Washington Talks Agenda

On the eve of talks in Washington aimed at getting the peace process back on track, Israel and the Palestinians were still at odds over the talks’ agenda.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has repeatedly stated that he thought this week’s meetings would be a “waste of time.”

Palestinian officials were pressing to discuss issues such as further Israeli redeployments in the West Bank and an Israeli halt to settlement construction.

Israeli officials have expressed a willingness to address these matters under certain conditions.

But they also have called for a second track of discussions on outstanding aspects of the 1995 Interim Agreement, such as the opening of an airport and seaport in the Gaza Strip and the creation of a Palestinian safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank.

The disagreement over the talks’ agenda were evident in the makeup of the two sides’ delegations.

While the Palestinians decided to send only their top negotiators — Abu Mazen, Saeb Erekat and Nabil Sha’ath — Israel sent some of the heads of the interim committees as well Foreign Minster David Levy.

In addition to the agenda, the two sides also differ on substantive issues as well.

Erekat said last week that the Palestinians would like a decision on the further redeployments, as well as discussions about the “timeout” in settlement building that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for in September when she met with Levy and Abu Mazen in New York.

But Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, a member of the Inner Security Cabinet, said last week that Israel would be ready to consider a “timeout” only if the Palestinians agreed to forego the further redeployments and consider accelerated permanentstatus negotiations.

U.S. officials said over the weekend that they expected progress from the talks and wanted to see a target date set for the second further redeployment.

Israel decided on the extent of the first redeployment last spring. But the Palestinians rejected the move as too little, and it was never carried out.

Arab states are closely awaiting the results of the meetings to decide whether they will attend a regional economic summit Nov. 16 to 18 in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has been traveling through the Middle East in an effort to get Arab states to attend.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said over the weekend that he was awaiting an “encouraging” sign from Israel before considering Cairo’s position on the meeting in Qatar.

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