- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Athens yesterday as U.S.-mediated security talks were held in Israel the first open contacts between the two warring sides since Ariel Sharon's government came to power in Israel last month.

The contacts come amid pressures from Arab leaders who have been pressing the White House to become more involved in the peace process. The Bush administration has backed away from the intense Middle East diplomacy of the Clinton administration but has said it would be there if called upon by the two sides.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is in the United States on an official visit, yesterday called for strong American involvement.

Without U.S. intervention in the peace process, "forces of fanaticism and terrorism would be able to block the road to peace," he said.

In Israel, U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk hosted security officials at his home in Herzlyia, north of Tel Aviv, Palestinian officials told the Associated Press. A CIA representative also was present, they said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that the U.S. presence at the meeting was a sign the Bush administration would remain "engaged" in the search for Middle East peace.

"We are pleased the parties have agreed" to hold the security talks, said Mr. Boucher. He said a U.S. official would "monitor, facilitate and report back to the secretary of state."

Mr. Mubarak hailed the talks as a step toward peace. He has been calling for immediate negotiations, even before the violence is halted. Mr. Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, has said the fighting must end before peace talks begin.

A short time after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Palestinian ministers Nabil Shaath and Saeb Erekat in Athens, Israeli troops were engaged in a gunbattle against Palestinians in Nablus on the West Bank.

Three Palestinians, including a mother and her daughter, were injured in the fighting. The two sides also fired mortar shells at each other in Gaza.

Mr. Peres said the sides would renew security talks, which have broken down repeatedly during the more than six months of fighting.

"We are now trying to get out of an extremely difficult period," Mr. Peres said after a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou.

Mr. Shaath said the aim was to "move toward a just peace with not one Palestinian child, not one Israeli child, hurt in the process."

But the Palestinians cautioned that no breakthroughs appeared imminent.

"I don't want to raise anyone's expectations. We had a very long and candid exchange of thoughts on all issues, the political aspect, the security aspect. We have different points of views in the ways we see things on the ground," Mr. Erekat said.

Since the fighting began in September, 458 persons have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 64 Israeli Jews and 19 others.

Mr. Mubarak, speaking to a rare gathering of prominent Arab and Jewish Americans in Washington, said he still hoped Mr. Sharon would be able to bring peace, despite the former general's hawkish reputation.

"I am waiting. I have the impression this man may be able to do something [for peace]. I hope so," Mr. Mubarak said.

"The cardinal requirement for peace is the end of military occupation and settlements" in Palestinian territories, he said at the meeting.

He asked Israel to lift the closure on Arab towns, which prevents Palestinians from working, traveling and obtaining food and medicine. He also called on Israel to get rid of its suspected nuclear weapons.

Mr. Mubarak had urged high-level Palestinian-Israeli talks, even before violence has abated, during his visits with Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell in the past days.

Mr. Bush, however, had endorsed Mr. Sharon's preconditions that Palestinian violence must end before negotiations on peace could resume.

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