WASHINGTON — American mediators reopened peace talks with Israel and the Palestinians at a U.S. Air Force base Tuesday in what the State Department called "a hopeful first step" toward a settlement.
"But obviously, the violence has to stop as well," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said as U.S. mediators Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller met separately with the two delegations at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
"Violence can never produce an agreement, and only negotiations will be able to produce an agreement," Reeker said. "There’s truly no other way."
Leaders of both sides have pledged to act to stop the worst Israeli-Arab violence in years in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, but little progress has been made. More than 330 people, almost all Arabs, have died since Palestinians began rock-throwing riots in late September that eventually were met by Israeli military force.
The talks at the air base were shrouded in secrecy, with reporters and the public barred.
"I don’t think making progress in these talks is benefited by making them public," Reeker said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami was due to join the negotiations after his arrival Tuesday night. He had remained in Jerusalem for deliberations in the Israeli Knesset as the rest of his delegation flew to Washington.
An Israeli diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the first step was to see whether an agreement reached in October to curb violence was being implemented, then to decide if there was a basis for negotiations on a settlement.
The scenario arranged by the U.S. hosts called for the separate meetings with American mediators that marked the first day, to be followed by three-way discussions and then direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Reeker said President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were expected to meet with the two sides "at some point."
At a year-end news conference in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan signaled that the United Nations intended to play a prominent role as well.
Annan said he was in contact daily with the key players. "I don’t think it’s hopeless," he said.
Later, his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, issued a statement saying Annan "is encouraged by the resumption of talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives under U.S. auspices."
In Jerusalem, Israeli Cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said the talks would be difficult, but some rapprochement is possible.
"There are gaps," Lipkin-Shahak said. "It won’t be easy nor simple to narrow the gaps, but as soon as there are talks, and there is a meeting between the sides, then I think there is room for optimism."
On the Palestinian side, Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath said Monday he expected Israel to offer more than it did at the Camp David talks in July hosted by Clinton. "I’m sure, I have no doubt," Shaath said.
In those talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed that the Palestinians establish a state, and that most of the West Bank and Gaza be turned over to them along with some areas of East Jerusalem, which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat eyes as his capital.
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