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Optimism Abounds as Peres, Arafat Resume Stalled Talks

By Kim Murphy and Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times
CAIRO, Egypt

Attempting to break through more than a week of bickering and recriminations that have stalled the Middle East peace process, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres began another round of private negotiations Monday night, and officials were optimistic they would make some headway on an agreement for Palestinian self-rule.

Peres and Arafat began their discussions in Cairo late Monday, providing signs of optimism after several days of charges and countercharges raised questions about whether the two sides, deadlocked over a plan for Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, even had anything to discuss.

"We came with the best of intentions, to write an agreement. We didn't come to bargain, to argue. We feel very responsible, and may I say that we have made progress and we intend to go ahead," Peres told reporters after meeting with Arafat.

The two leaders, along with their delegations, were scheduled to continue informal discussions through the night and again Tuesday. They announced the appointment of two small working groups, each composed of three delegates from each side, to begin plowing through the remaining points of dispute.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said it appeared the two sides made progress on the deadlock that has delayed for weeks the scheduled withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

"It could be days away, but it could also be a little longer, because there are a lot of details to work out," he said, adding that the opening meeting "confirmed the intention of the two parties to reach an agreement."

Arafat, who had initially threatened not to come because of the slim prospects for an agreement, met first with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had urged Arafat to at least attempt to make some progress toward breaking the deadlock, even if no final agreement is signed.