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US Envoy Holds Mideast Talks


U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns is holding three days of meetings with Palestinian and Israeli officials in an effort to bring about a resumption of long-stalled peace talks. There is rising optimism that a truce could take hold and that an Israeli-Palestinian summit might take place within a few weeks.

There is a sense of optimism here, not necessarily that long-term peace is around the corner, but that at least the violence might stop, that daily life will get better and that the two sides might actually resume negotiations.

In an interview published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot on Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he is "very satisfied," with Palestinian efforts to reduce violence and curb militant activity and added he intends to move forward with the new Palestinian leadership to advance the process.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been talking with militant groups in Gaza and has gotten their tacit agreement for at least a temporary halt in attacks against Israel.

Israeli officials have made no firm promises, except to say that if calm prevails Israel will respond in kind.

And, now there are reports from both sides that a summit between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas could take place soon.

U.S. envoy William Burns came here amid this glimmer of optimism. Mr. Burns met Wednesday with Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Labor party leader Shimon Peres and with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayed. He held talks in Ramallah on Thursday with President Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, said he was encouraged by Palestinian efforts to curb violence and promised Washington would do what it could to help.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Palestinian radio, the Palestinians want a clearer American commitment.

The main question, he said, is how to get back to the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan. He also said Palestinians want to see a clearer American position in regard to Israel's building of its so-called security barrier in and around the West Bank and about what he described as continued Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land.

Mr. Burns also meets with Prime Minister Sharon in Jerusalem. Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, recently told Israeli radio, the government is happy with American efforts.

"What they need to do is to continue - on the one hand encouraging the peace initiative by Israel and on the other hand, supporting the positive forces within the Palestinians, but reminding everyone that first and foremost, they have to stop terror," he said.

Despite the new found optimism, some analysts warn the current climate could be abruptly disrupted by a lack of continued forward movement.

Political analyst Akiva Eldar of Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, says he believes much greater American involvement will be needed to put pressure on the two protagonists.

"I don't think that the two parties can dance alone. For this tango, you need three - at least three," he said.

Incoming U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she expects to take a very active and personal role in trying to revive peace negotiations.

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