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Sponsors Seek to Salvage Middle East Peace Process

But with no new date or venue established, enthusiam is at a low ebb

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BURDENED by a distinct lack of enthusiasm and continued controversy over who should represent the Palestinians, the multilateral Middle East peace negotiations got off to a troubled start this week in Moscow.

Israel's refusal to talk to Palestinian exiles threatened the future of the talks, and also presaged a new conflict with the United States, as Secretary of State James Baker III and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy voiced opposing views on the subject.

At the same time, Arab countries' unwillingness to talk seriously about regional issues until Israel has made concessions in bilateral peace talks with its neighbors seemed to undermine the key US concept of parallel and complementary negotiations.

The conference, attended by more than 30 nations from the Middle East and around the world, set up working groups on five regional issues - arms control, economic development, water resources, environmental problems, and refugees.

But the date of their next meetings was not agreed upon and is not expected to be before May. Nor was the nature of their discussions decided; some groups may meet only as seminars, rather than negotiating forums, conference organizers say.

The delay and vagueness of the next step reflect Arab and Israeli reservations about the direction the peace process, cosponsored by the US and Russia, is taking.

The suggestion of seminars was designed to offer an informal forum for talks that would sidestep Israeli objections to participation by Palestinians outside the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinians stayed away from the Moscow meeting to protest the limitations placed on their representation.

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