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Isreal, Palestinians Restart Talks, Anounce Few Small Agreements

By Barton Gellman and John Lancaster
The Washington Post

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators announced their first modest agreements Thursday since a deadly terrorist attack in January brought movement toward Palestinian self-rule to a virtual halt.

The progress was largely symbolic. Its centerpiece was a promise to try, by July 1, to reach a consensus on the manner in which Palestinians will hold elections and Israel's army will make a long-promised withdrawal from the cities of the occupied West Bank. Even so, Thursday's meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was conspicuously warmer than other recent contacts between the two sides.

That was enough to brighten the arrival here of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who began his eighth Middle East shuttle mission at a moment of no small gloom in regional diplomacy.

Thursday, Christopher left Cairo, his first stop, without resolving a dispute between Egypt and Israel over Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal, but conciliatory remarks by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left the impression a compromise might be in reach.

In a further attempt to rebuild momentum for a historic peace process that lately has stalled on all fronts, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin greeted Christopher with a public prediction that "your mission here will bring about the resumption of the negotiations, in whatever format, with Syria and Lebanon." Peres and Arafat, who met at the Erez border crossing a few hours before Christopher touched down, agreed that Israel would "immediately" open a free passage between Gaza and the autonomous Palestinian enclave of Jericho on the West Bank, a step it has long promised but stalled because of security concerns. Peres announced 4,000 new permits for Palestinian workers in Israel, bringing the total to 21,000.