Peres Center for Peace opens as talks crawl forward

JERUSALEM — They came to urge Middle East peace at a time when the once fast-paced negotiations have slowed to a crawl.

Some 140 foreign dignitaries gathered Monday in Tel Aviv for the dedication of the Peres Center for Peace.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, 74, received a standing ovation when he told the gathering that there was a "profound desire by the Israeli people to return to peace."

"We are together in a serious attempt to make peace a reality in this troubled and suffering region," he said of the center, which will work to advance joint Israeli-Palestinian economic projects.

Uri Savir, the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who served as the first Israeli official to negotiate with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993, will serve as the center's first director.

The ceremony took place as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was making his latest attempt to nudge the stalled peace process forward.

It also came just days before a senior defense official, who served as a former coordinator of government activities in the territories, was expected to propose a two-state solution for breaking the present impasse in negotiations.

Maj. Gen. Oren Shahor, who attended the center's dedication, is slated to propose the creation of a Palestinian state when he addresses a Peace Now luncheon Monday in Washington, according to sources with the dovish organization.

In January, Shahor was removed from the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians after it was disclosed that he had held unauthorized meetings with Israeli opposition leaders to update them on the status of the talks.

Shahor, now involved with the Labor Party, then left the Israeli Defense Force — after 32 years of service.

The center's first project is slated to be an industrial park between Israel and the Gaza Strip, a move that could provide an estimated 50,000 jobs for Palestinians.

Speakers at Monday's opening ceremony repeatedly referred to the bleak state of current affairs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was conspicuously absent from the ceremony.

But other members of his government — including Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — were present, as were President Ezer Weizman and several Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian officials.

Also in attendance was former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who spoke of the gap between the dreams of Oslo and the present situation.

Israeli-Palestinian relations "have eroded alarmingly," he said.

Ross, who also attended the ceremony, arrived in Israel on Sunday, when he began shuttling between the two sides.

But there were no breakthroughs in the meetings he arranged.

Agreement was reached to established a joint steering committee to oversee the efforts of the nine so-called interim committees, which are discussing issues remaining from the 1995 Interim Agreement.

But those committees — dealing with such issues as the opening of an airport and seaport in Gaza and the opening of a safe passage route for Palestinians traveling between Gaza and the West Bank — accomplished little else.

After holding separate meetings earlier in the week with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Ross arranged a meeting Tuesday between Arafat and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

When Ross left the region Wednesday, the two sides could not even agree about what had been accomplished. Eitan Ben Tsur, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, described the week's negotiations as positive. But Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Irdeineh said the Ross mission had failed, and he warned of further violence.

This week's round of meetings were preparations for further discussions next week in Washington, where Foreign Minister David Levy is expected to meet with Ross and Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who serves as deputy to Arafat.

Hours before the dedication ceremony of the center, dozens of guests attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The memorial was erected on the steps of the Tel Aviv Municipality, the site of his assassination in November 1995.

"Welcome to this sad place," said Leah Rabin, the premier's widow.

"They killed the leader, but they will not manage to kill the spirit," Peres said.