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After Long Delay, Mideast Talks Appear Back on Track

FRANTIC behind-the-scenes negotiations on the terms of Palestinian participation in Middle East peace talks have moved into the home stretch.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin traveled to Egypt Wednesday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Tuesday, and the Palestinian delegation has been meeting with United States officials in Washington.

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After a four-month impasse, it now appears highly probable that talks between Israel and the four Arab delegations will start in Washington on or near April 20, the date set by the Clinton administration in concert with Russia.

"Everyone wants these talks," says a Western diplomat here. "They must go ahead."

The final decision on whether the delegations from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians will attend the talks is expected to be made in Damascus tomorrow.

On the surface, the summit in the Egyptian town of Ismailia between Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Rabin resulted in little more than hopeful platitudes.

The Israelis, bolstered by new US support, are sticking to their refusal to make further concessions on the remaining 396 Palestinians they deported last December for allegedly supporting the militant group Hamas. The issue is the key obstacle to the talks.

But Israeli officials say they are prepared to offer some form of political compensation to the Palestinians in Washington.

"Until April 20, Israel decided not to make any new gestures," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Wednesday. "Right after that there will be an exchange of gestures between Israel and the Palestinians.... Peace is a process of exchanging gestures instead of exchanging blows."

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THE one move the Israelis did make Wednesday was a virtual acceptance of Faisal al-Husseini into the Palestinian delegation.

Mr. Husseini is a widely respected descendant of one of Jerusalem's most famous nationalist families, and his participation would effectively end Israel's refusal to negotiate with residents of Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 war.

The city is holy both to Muslim and Christian Palestinians, as well as Jews, and is the natural physical and cultural heartland of any Palestinian state, a prospect most Israelis find unacceptable.

Although the Clinton administration was unwilling to push Israel beyond its proposal to return immediately 101 of the Palestinian deportees with the others to be repatriated by the end of the year, it proposed that Israel allow Husseini to join the delegation.

If the Palestinians return to the table, Rabin indicated that Israel would consider repatriating at least 50 Palestinian nationalists associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization who have beendeported since 1967 - a move that could bolster the PLO in its conflict with Hamas.

"We all want this [the return of PLO deportees], the Israelis and the PLO," an Arab diplomat in Cairo says.

IT is believed that one of the messages Mr. Arafat wanted Mubarak to make clear to Rabin was the need to undercut Hamas because its potent ideology of Islamic militancy was a threat to the entire region. Both the PLO and Hamas are contending for popular support in the occupied territories.

Palestinian negotiators apparently are heartened by the US promise to take a more direct role in the peace process, which has yielded no tangible benefits for the Palestinians since it began in Madrid in 1991.

But Arab analysts express concern that Rabin's stance in Ismailia indicated Israel's confidence in the depth of support it has received from the Clinton administration, which has insisted that the Palestinians must agree to come to the table before further concessions are made.

"Rabin was polite but harsh.... With American support they will make their concessions after the Palestinians agree to start the talks so as to appear as a magnanimous gesture," says Mohammad Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian political analyst here.

At the heart of Palestinian concern is how much land they will be allowed to keep and over what period they gain independence.

During the Ismailia press conference Mr. Rabin said: "We don't want to annex the bulk of almost 2 million Palestinians who reside in the territories," and added that "land for peace" would be the basis of the negotiations.

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