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Israel, Palestinians report progress ahead of Albright’s visit to the region

JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (JTA) — Israel is trying to build support in the Arab world for its position in negotiations with the Palestinians before U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits the region Sept. 1. Israel Radio reported that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy dispatched a senior ministry official to Morocco to explain Israel’s stand on the peace talks. The station said senior ministry officials would also travel to Mauritania, Tunisia and Gulf Arab states. The message they’re carrying: Israel intends to carry out the Wye River accord and wants the final-status negotiations to begin as soon as possible. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were due to continue talks Tuesday on the main sticking points holding up the implementation of the U.S.-brokered accord — the release of Palestinian prisoners and a timetable for Israel to hand over to the Palestinians the remaining 11 percent of West Bank land it committed to in last October’s agreement. Palestinian officials said some progress was made in discussions this week, with the sides reaching agreement on the opening of a southern safe- passage route between the Gaza Strip and West Bank on Oct. 1, as well as the start of construction of a Palestinian seaport in Gaza. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat also said the sides had agreed to open a northern safe-passage route in January. Sources in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office were quoted as saying that the deals on the seaport and safe-passage routes were both contingent on the rest of the differences between the two sides, most notably, the release of Palestinian prisoners and a timetable for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, being resolved. At the same time, senior Israeli political sources sounded a cautious note of optimism, saying Tuesday that the two sides would probably agree on how and when to implement the Wye accord ahead of Albright’s arrival. The sources were quoted by Israel Radio as saying Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat would probably meet before Albright’s visit. Israeli media also reported that there may be a ceremony marking the start of final-status negotiations during the visit. Palestinian officials were not overly optimistic. Hishad Abdel Razek, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of prisoner affairs, suggested that Israel might be trying to use the safe-passage route and seaport to extract concessions from the Palestinians on other aspects of the Wye accord.

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