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Final Status Talks Begin

Today, November 8, 1999, Israel and the Palestinians began historic negotiations on a final peace treaty at the Grand Park Hotel in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The chief negotiators, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and Israeli diplomat Oded Eran held a 75-minute meeting and expressed confidence that they could meet the timetable of preparing a framework agreement by February 2000 and a final accord by September. President Clinton has offered to host a Camp David-like summit in the final stretch of the framework negotiations.

The talks were overshadowed by a bomb attack Sunday that injured 33 Israelis in the coastal resort of Netanya. No group has claimed responsibility. Israeli security officials have warned that militants would step up attacks as the peace process gains momentum.

Not surprisingly, the talks started with each side laying out familiar positions. The Palestinians insisted on an Israeli withdrawal from the heavily Palestinian lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war - the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Those are the areas they want to unite as an independent Palestinian state. Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians have the right to self-determination and that millions of Palestinian refugees must be allowed to return or be given compensation. He also said Jewish settlement-building in the disputed lands was the main obstacle to a peace treaty and must be halted immediately. Eran said Israel would never agree to give up part of Jerusalem or withdraw to the 1967 Mideast border. He insisted that a majority of the 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Both sides reiterated that they were committed to U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 calling for an Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Israel maintains, however, that the resolutions don't require a pullback from all of the territory, an interpretation that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reiterated Sunday in the weekly meeting of his Cabinet.

After the opening statements, negotiators briefly discussed procedure. They agreed to meet twice or three times a week, and set the next session for Thursday.

So-called final status talks began in May 1996 under the outgoing government of Israel's then-prime minister, Shimon Peres. His successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, got entangled with the Palestinians on interim issues and held only one round of talks.

Under Barak, negotiations reopened with a brief ceremony on Sept. 13. Today marked the first round of serious negotiations.