Syria has raised hopes that direct talks with Israel could be revived when US Secretary of State Warren Christopher visits the region at the end of November. The last talks between the two sides were held in Washington in January. Since then communication has been limited to US mediation.

Syria’s Foreign Affairs Minister Farouq al-Shara said on 7 November that Christopher might be able to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. ‘He might come up with something on the basis of which the talks in Washington would resume,’ he told reporters in Cairo after holding talks with Egypt’s President Mubarak. ‘It depends how serious Israel is and how it responds to the requirements of peace that Syria has proposed.’

Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres has reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to reaching an agreement with Syria. However, he told delegates at a business conference in Jerusalem on 7 November that the slow progress of talks with Damascus would not delay Israel’s efforts to reach settlements with other Arab countries.

Deputy foreign affairs minister Yossi Beilin showed Israel’s determination to broaden out the peace talks when he visited Qatar and Oman in early November. Israel Radio said the Oman visit was aimed at developing bilateral relations and low-level diplomatic relations between Oman and Israel. However, Oman radio said Beilin’s meeting with Oman’s minister of state for foreign affairs Yousef Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah on 7 November was held within the framework of the multilateral talks on water and the environment, following up talks hosted by Oman in April.

Israel has also said it will accelerate talks with the Palestinians, which have become bogged down in recent weeks over the scope of Palestinian elections and interrupted by the Tel Aviv bus bombing.

Following a meeting with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on 8 November near the Gaza border, Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) would be given control of tourism and welfare by mid-November and said health and taxation powers would be transferred by the end of the month. The PNA took control of education in September.

Rabin also said the number of work permits to Palestinian labourers crossing the border to Israel would be increased to 23,000. However, both sides have still failed to agree on a new date for elections in the occupied territories.