Peres says US need not take lead in Mideast talks

Peres says US need not take lead in Mideast talks

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on Monday his country preferred face to face talks with the Palestinians rather than giving the United States the leading role in Middle East peace talks.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Peres also said Israel was taking a series of "unconditional" steps to ease restrictions on Palestinian economic life, such as issuing work permits and helping with water supplies.

And he castigated Syria for preventing Lebanese troops from deploying along the southern Lebanon border with Israel, a move he said allowed Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas free rein.

Peres began his U.S. tour with an hour-long session with Annan, before going to Washington for meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday and President George W. Bush on Thursday. He complimented Annan for the role he had played in an attempt to stop the seven months of violence between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Asked whether Bush should play the same strong role as former President Bill Clinton did in Middle East talks, Peres said: "We would appreciate American support. But we don't suggest the Americans should become the chief negotiator."

He reminded reporters that secret talks in Oslo with the Palestinians, which led to the 1993 accords that opened the now aborted peace process, were face-to-face negotiations.

In the main, he said he told Annan that the situation on the Israeli-Lebanese border across the so-called "blue line" marked by the United Nations was untenable.

He said there were three armies in Lebanon: a 30,000-strong Syrian army, a weak Lebanese military and Hizbollah guerrillas, who operate independently from the Lebanese government "and take orders from Iran."

"Our main complaint is that the Syrians prevent the Lebanese army from redeploying itself alongside the borders, thus leaving the borders open to Hizbollah and their initiatives," Peres said.

He also said he related to Annan several measures Israel intended to carry out unconditionally to ease the economic plight of the Palestinians. One move, announced earlier in Israel, was to increase the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel to 20,000, bringing the total to 40,000.

"We don't want the Palestinian people to suffer. We are against collective punishment," Peres said.

In addition, he said Israel was increasing the number of permits for Palestinian merchants to remain in Israel from 1,000 to 5,000 and was lifting restrictions on trade with the territories. Other measures include an offer to build a pipeline to bring Israeli water to Hebron.

Speaking to reporters ahead of Peres' arrival, Annan said he was encouraged that an Egyptian-Jordanian cease-fire proposal was on the table and both sides were looking at it,"But it is too early to say whether it is going to fly or not," Annan said.

Peres said the cease-fire had not yet been put in place but "we have a group of security people meeting constantly."

He said the meeting in Cairo on Sunday reached an "understanding" but there was no written agreement yet.

"We have agreed ..on a track about how to handle the cease-fire. It's not yet an agreement. It is an understanding. that is not written down," he said. "But we did reach an understanding."

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