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Israel softens position on regional talks

In a gesture intended to preserve the momentum of the Middle East peace talks, Israel on Thursday night withdrew its previous objections to the participation of Palestinians from outside the occupied territories in discussions on regional issues.

The concession means that, barring any other disputes that may arise, Israel will attend separate panels scheduled in the next few weeks on Middle East refugee problems and economic development. The Israelis until now have boycotted both forums because Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been allowed to take part.

But in formally announcing the changed attitude, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres cautioned that Israel, as before, would not sit down with residents from East Jerusalem or with members of the Palestine National Council, the legislative arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Moreover, the new concessions apply only to the regional talks bringing together countries from inside and outside the Middle East to discuss mutual problems like water, arms control and security and the environment.

Nothing was changed in the format of the more crucial bilateral talks _ direct negotiations between Israel and Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians _ which have moved along inconclusively for nearly a year and are to resume Oct. 21.

Nonetheless, the Peres announcement was seen as an attempt by the new Labor-led government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to be seen as taking a more flexible approach to the talks than its predecessor.