- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

JERUSALEM Israel and the Palestinians resumed high-level peace talks last night, raising hopes of reaching some kind of accord before President Clinton leaves office in a little over a week.

Israel's team, led by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, arrived at Gaza's Erez checkpoint just before midnight, meeting a Palestinian team waiting there.

The Israelis immediately entered talks with senior Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo and Saeb Erekat, Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan and legislative council speaker Ahmed Qureia, who had boycotted talks for months.

Resumption of talks three weeks after the last high-level contacts, in Washington followed a series of security meetings that led yesterday to the easing of Israel's blockade on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Danny Yatom, told Israel television that both sides are interested in checking whether they can "agree on some kind of wording" before Mr. Clinton's term ends Jan. 20.

Any such agreement could be used to keep the peace process going after Mr. Clinton leaves office, Mr. Yatom said.

Nabil Aburdeneh, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the next 72 hours "could be decisive, and we hope these efforts will lead to something."

Another senior Palestinian official closely involved in the contacts said the United States was pressuring both sides to produce a treaty outline, with each side listing its position on disputed points.

Once the work is completed, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross would come to the region to try to narrow the gaps. Major differences remain on the fate of Palestinian refugees and control over a key Jerusalem holy shrine.

Earlier in the day, Israel eased its tight closure of Palestinian areas and officers from both sides toured trouble spots as part of a U.S.-backed plan to quell violence, reduce friction and pave the way for new talks.

Joint Israeli-Palestinian security patrols a pillar of interim peace accords will be resumed in 10 days, said Brig. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaida, a Palestinian security chief.

Such patrols were called off shortly after the outbreak of fighting that has killed 364 persons, including 313 Palestinians, 37 Israeli Jews, 13 Israeli Arabs and a German doctor.

The fragility of the newly positive atmosphere was underlined yesterday in Jerusalem. A passer-by in a crowded Jewish neighborhood defused a bomb, wrenching a cell phone from the explosive device it was apparently set to detonate.

In the past, bombings have led to Israeli restrictions on the Palestinians, halting peace talks.

Mr. Clinton's peace proposals suggest that the Palestinians set up a state in 95 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, including sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and a disputed Islamic and Jewish holy site there.

In return, the Palestinians would scale back their claim of right of return to Israel for millions of refugees and their families.

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