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Israel Moves Peace Process Forward with New Ambassador, Safe Passage

Israel took several key steps toward advancing peace efforts this week, with two key diplomatic appointments and the opening of a safe-passage route for Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

At the same time, tensions were high in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where riots continued following Monday’s shooting death of a Palestinian who the Israeli army said had tried to stab a soldier.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy agreed this week on the appointment of David Ivry, former director general of the Defense Ministry, as ambassador to the United States and Oded Eran, Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, as chief negotiator in final-status talks with the Palestinians.

Ivry is considered to have good relations with the U.S. administration. Currently head of Barak’s National Security Council, Ivry is one of a group of Israeli officials involved in drawing up a new strategic cooperation pact with the United States.

“We have known and worked with David Ivry for many years, and he is a superb choice,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“He has probably been responsible for handling more sensitive matters in the U.S.-Israel relationship than perhaps any other individual in the last decade. He is without question one of Israel’s most seasoned and proven strategists who is intimately familiar with all of the nuances in the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The appointments came as American peace team members Martin Indyk, who is slated to return to Israel as ambassador, and Dennis Ross were to arrive in Israel to try to push forward peace efforts.

Eran, a veteran diplomat who has served in the Israeli Embassy, is believed to be close to both Indyk and Ross, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. The Palestinians have accused Israel of foot-dragging in getting the final-status talks under way.

Under the Sharm el-Sheik agreement signed in September, the two sides set a five-month deadline for reaching a framework agreement with the aim of concluding an accord in a year.

Also this week, Israel opened a land link between the Palestinian autonomous areas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, first envisioned in the Cairo Accords five years ago. The 28-mile route through Israel enables Palestinians bearing special permits to travel between the two areas.

The opening of the safe-passage route was hailed as another step forward in implementing the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. At the same time, Palestinians are critical of the rigorous Israeli security checks they are still subjected to.

Some Israelis protested against what they said are the dangers posed to towns and cities along the route.

In Tel Aviv, a group of rabbis convened to condemn the transfer of any part of the Land of Israel. The same group had issued a religious edict against the territorial concessions negotiated by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the chairman of the Knesset warned that similar decrees could lead to violence.

Alongside this developments, tensions were high in Bethlehem for a second day. Some 15 Palestinians and two Israeli border police were injured in Tuesday’s confrontations, reports said.

Reports said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, visiting Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, canceled a trip to Bethlehem due to the unrest.

Cook’s visit was also marred by a confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian security guards. The Palestinian guards prevented an Israeli bodyguard who was accompanying Cook from entering an eastern Jerusalem hotel where the diplomat held talks Tuesday with Palestinian officials Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.

Israeli police who arrived at the site demanded that the Palestinian guards come outside for questioning, or the police would enter the building. Following mediation, the two guards left the hotel and were questioned by police about the incident.

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