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Negotiators shake hands, start talking final peace

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JERUSALEM, Nov. 8 (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have launched talks aimed at achieving a final peace agreement.

The final-status talks, which began Monday — nearly four years later than originally envisioned in the 1993 Oslo accord — took place amid the all- too-familiar landscape of a terror attack that occurred a day earlier.

Meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, chief Israeli negotiator Oded Eran and his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed Rabbo, shook hands for the cameras before sitting down to discuss mostly procedural issues facing them as they try to reach a framework for a final accord by February.

The meeting lasted less than two hours, but negotiators later said they planned to meet again Thursday and hold several sessions each week to meet the February deadline.

There were opening ceremonies for the talks in 1996 as well as some six weeks ago, but Monday’s session represented the first time the two sides had actually gotten down to formal business.

Along with creating an outline for an agreement within little more than 100 days, the two sides have also committed themselves to signing a final agreement by September.

Outside the Ramallah hotel where Monday’s talks were held, a small group of Jewish protesters held signs that read, “Don’t Abandon 200,000 Israeli Citizens,” referring to Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

At a news conference after the meeting, Abed Rabbo described “settlement activities” as the main obstacle to achieving a final peace.

The meeting came one day after more than 30 Israelis were wounded, most of them lightly, in three pipe-bomb explosions in the coastal city of Netanya.

Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Monday investigators were examining the possibility the attack was linked to the anniversary of the October 1995 assassination in Malta of Fathi Shakaki, the leader of Islamic Jihad, which opposes the Oslo peace process.

No group claimed responsibility for the three pipe bombs that exploded Sunday. A fourth pipe bomb did not detonate.

Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed the attack on Islamic militants seeking to derail the peace process.

The Israeli Cabinet was meeting to approve the next withdrawal from the West Bank when the attack occurred.

According to witnesses and police, the explosions occurred at about 10:30 a.m in the heart of Netanya’s business district. They added that the bombs had been planted near a garbage bin not far from a bank.

“I was at the corner, waiting at a red light, when I heard an explosion behind us, three explosions,” said an Israel Radio reporter who was at the scene.

“There was heavy smoke and fire. I looked behind and saw fire in a pile of garbage and saw six or seven people lying on the sidewalk. Police arrived in a few minutes.”

Prime Minister Ehud Barak soon issued a statement saying the government was determined to eliminate terrorism and that it expected the Palestinian Authority to do likewise.

The Palestinian Authority also spoke out against the attack.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, secretary of the Palestinian Authority, said there was a clear link between the attack and Monday’s scheduled start of the final- status talks.

He said the Palestinian Authority had arrested some 25 Islamic Jihad activists and members of the Hamas military wing in recent weeks who were allegedly planning terrorist attacks.

The bombing followed last week’s summit in Oslo, where Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat vowed to press ahead with the final stretch of the peace process.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Sunday that Israeli officials have long been warning that Islamic militants may try to sabotage the process.

The militants “do not want us to move forward,” Sneh told Israel Radio. But, he added, “the dialogue will continue.”

The next day in Ramallah, negotiators for the two sides were upbeat despite the difficult issues confronting them — including the final status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, borders and water rights.

“We recognize the enormity of the problems,” Eran said at the news conference. “But we commit ourselves, without reservations, to holding these negotiations as partners, to maintaining a dialogue based on mutual respect.”

Abed Rabbo described the atmosphere of the first session as “very frank, very constructive and very open.”

“It’s a historic moment, and we believe through continuous and extensive work” the two sides will “accomplish a framework agreement for final status on the 15th of February.”

During the meeting, the sides exchanged vastly differing policy positions.

Each side is approaching the talks with several “red lines” — issues that are not subject to compromise.

The Palestinians seek an independent Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, demand an end to Jewish settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. They also expect that the talks will be based on U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which were reached in 1967 and 1973 and established the land-for-peace principle.

Israel has maintained that Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital, that there will not be a return to the pre-1967 borders, that it will maintain Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and that no foreign army will deploy west of the Jordan River.

Eran said at the meeting that while the U.N. resolutions have been subject to various interpretations, the land-for-peace principle remained the basis for the interim peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

But on Sunday, Barak was quoted as telling his Cabinet the U.N. resolutions do not apply to the West Bank.

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