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News briefs, part 2

Christopher Kicks Off Mideast Talks With Promise, Warning

Los Angeles Times

CAIRO, Egypt

Secretary of State Warren Christopher began his first mission to the Middle East Thursday with a promise and a warning to Israel and its Arab neighbors: The Clinton administration is willing to spend time and energy to help peace talks succeed, but not if the Arabs and Israelis play hard-to-get, senior officials aboard Christopher's airplane said.

"It's a big world, with lots of things to do," one senior official said, noting that the administration already has its hands full with problems in Bosnia, Russia and elsewhere.

The Middle East "seems to us to have a very high priority, but it can't continue to have that priority, if we're pushing against a closed door," the official warned.

Christopher plans to spend much of his week-long trip through the Middle East investigating the attitudes of the region's leaders, and deciding whether the peace talks are worth a major investment of time, officials said.

"He's going to be listening very, very carefully to what he hears from ... the Arabs, the Israelis, the Palestinians, as to how serious they are in promoting meaningful negotiations that can move this peace process forward," another senior official said.

"He will then come back with his own assessment that he will give to President Clinton. Based on that assessment of the seriousness of engagement ... the president will decide what I could call the quality of engagement by the United States in these negotiations," he said.

Officials refused to describe further what they meant by the "quality of engagement" by the United States. But it appeared to imply that Christopher has little interest in investing a large part of his time in negotiations that offer little hope of success.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III launched the talks in 1991, but getting them under way required a large part of his time and a dozen grueling trips to the region. Baker, too, threatened several times to abandon his quest if the area's leaders did not show themselves ready to make compromises for peace. Even then, Baker was unable to bring the negotiations close to a conclusion before he left the State Department last August.

A round of talks between Israel and Syria last fall briefly raised the prospect of a possible peace between the area's two most implacable enemies, but little concrete progress followed.

In December, the Arab delegations at the talks said they would suspend negotiations to protest Israel's expulsion of more than 400 Palestinians, whom the Israelis suspect of being Muslim militants, across the Lebanese border.

In recent weeks Arab diplomats have said their governments want to return to the table, but they have also pressed for the early return of the deportees.

Israel has offered to allow 100 of the deportees to return immediately, with the rest to follow by the end of the year. But the deportees themselves have rejected that offer.

Russia Revokes Law That Sent Prisoners to Exile

Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW

Russian legislators, making a historic update to the Criminal Code, Thursday revoked the law that let czars and Communists alike sentence many of Russia's illustrious sons and daughters -- from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Soviet-era dissidents -- to Siberian exile or banishment.

"This is especially pleasant for me because if events had developed otherwise, I would still have been imprisoned in exile," said Lev Timofeyev, a Moscow human rights activist released in 1987. "Thank God, all my friends are free."

Humanizing the Criminal Code, the Supreme Soviet abolished four types of punishment often used in Russia for cruel ends: exile within the country, banishment from cities like Moscow, forced labor in lieu of incarceration and parole conditioned on fulfilling mandatory, often backbreaking or hazardous jobs.

Asked why, Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin replied, "Because this is outdated practice."

"We must look real facts in the face," he told reporters. "If a person has served his sentence or part of his sentence and has demonstrated that he has repented and is going to reform, and has drawn conclusions, let us release him and let him go back home and take up a job without the intermediate stage of exile, of living in the backwoods. It is hard on his family, his wife and his children often to go to the place of exile to join him. Who needs all this?"

McDonald's Considers Imposing Smoking Ban in Its Restaurants

The Washington Post

Ronald McDonald may be about to kick the habit.

McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant operator, is considering banning smoking in its nearly 9,000 U.S. outlets, a move that anti-tobacco activists see as a potential milestone in their efforts to eliminate smoking from public places.

McDonald's President Edward H. Rensi and the company's top communications executive, Richard Starmann, have met in recent weeks with McDonald's franchisees to discuss ways to implement a smoking ban, company sources said Thursday. "It's something we have on the front burner," said a key executive of the company, which is based in Oak Brook, Ill. "It's not something we're treating lightly."

McDonald's, which claims to serve one of every 16 Americans each week, has been a kind of corporate weather vane on social-policy issues. Because of its high profile on Main Street, its changes in policy have tended to clear the way for others.

After complaints from environmentalists, for example, the company banned the polystyrene "clamshell" packaging for its Big Mac, and other chains did the same. McDonald's also has introduced low-fat foods and packaged salads and posted the nutritional content of its menu items in response to diet concerns. In each case, the company captured favorable media attention.

Anti-smoking activists say persuading McDonald's to ban smoking could set off another chain reaction. "McDonald's is the biggest, and they are the trendsetter," said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a Washington-based anti-smoking organization.

Since last summer, McDonald's and other fast-food chains have been the object of a letter-writing campaign organized by ASH. The group has been urging McDonald's to prohibit smoking because the chain advertises to and attracts so many children. "I certainly got the impression they were giving it careful consideration," Banzhaf said. "I am cautiously optimistic."

AS* and other health groups say their arguments are strengthened by the Environmental Protection Agency's adoption of a report last month that classified second-hand tobacco smoke as a cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. The EPA estimated that so-called environmental tobacco smoke kills 3,000 adults a year who develop lung cancer, and results in 150,000 to 300,000 cases of bronchitis, pneumonia and other lower respiratory infections in children up to 18 months old.

"A chain like McDonald's has to realize now that (second-hand smoke) is a serious health risk and toxin and that it could potentially harm its customers," said Joe Marx, a spokesman for the American Heart Association in Washington.

A McDonald's spokeswoman said the company's outlets already follow state and local smoking regulations, and are encouraged to have separate smoking and non-smoking areas. She declined further comment.

An executive who asked not to be identified said discussions about a ban have been taking place within the company since December. He said no decision has been made, although the company may test such a policy before extending it to all its stores.