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New Mideast Talks Begin As US Urges Progress

New negotiations are set to go nearly around the clock; but Palestinians think Israel will talk around issues too

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Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks aimed at reviving the flagging Mideast peace process yesterday amid continuing mistrust and the threat of more violence if talks fail.

Underlining the American stake in their success, Secretary of State Warren Christopher met separately yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat just hours before the talks began.

Mr. Christopher - who stopped in the region on his way to a long-scheduled trip in Africa - said he would reinforce US expectations for "the importance of significant progress, the urgency of it, and especially a reminder of their commitment that they would become personally involved if progress wasn't made."

Palestinian officials say they are worried that the Israelis are only taking part to prevent the process from crumbling further, instead of looking for ways to advance peace.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat met in Washington last week for a two-day emergency summit with President Clinton in an effort to salvage the US-brokered peace deal, which was in tatters after Israeli-Palestinian violence left more than 70 dead.

Veteran US Mideast coordinator Dennis Ross is facilitating the talks at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza. And the European Union - frustrated by US dominance in the peace process and requested by Arafat to play a role - sent Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring.

Palestinian negotiators made clear they would hold the right-wing Netanyahu to promises he would stick to commitments made by the previous Israeli government.

These include the delayed withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron - where 450 Jewish settlers live amid more than 100,000 Arabs - and the beginning of "final status" talks on contentious issues such as Jerusalem and expansion of Jewish settlement in Arab areas.

Returning to Gaza for the first time since the US summit, Arafat told a noisy crowd of supporters they would have to "wait and see" if there would be progress. "We are not asking for the moon, and we gave a new chance for peace," he said.

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