NEW YORK – The Middle East and Northern Ireland took center stage at the World Economic Forum on Sunday, as key players in two of the globe's most intractable conflicts expressed hope that they could work toward peace.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he saw "a ray of hope" for Mideast peace on the fourth day of the forum, while key players in the peace effort for Northern Ireland said they were pleased with the disarmament process.
Peres welcomed an opinion piece by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Sunday's New York Times, saying it marked the first time in 16 months of fighting that he indicated a readiness to discuss key issues and expressed determination "to put an end" to the activities of terrorist organizations attacking Israeli civilians.
"I believe that despite all the very pessimistic views, there is also a ray of hope," he said.
New talks with the Palestinians could lead to a cease-fire, Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state and Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist, Peres said. And eventually a final settlement could be reached on the most contentious issues of borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, he added.
"The plan that we are now discussing is stop the war, then recognize immediately the establishment of a Palestinian state," Peres said, but he added that Arafat must first stop suicide attacks on Israelis.
In Israel on Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced he would continue cease-fire talks begun last week with the Palestinians.
But some critics interpreted the comments by Sharon and Arafat largely as public relations efforts by a pair of leaders facing mounting difficulties. Israel has confined Arafat to the West Bank town of Ramallah for the past two months, and the United States has demanded that the Palestinian leader do more to crack down on militants.
Sounding a more pessimistic view on Mideast peace, King Abdullah II of Jordan later told a plenary session of the forum that the Arab-Israeli conflict "has put the brakes on progress in the Middle East and fed extremism around the world."
"The present situation in the Palestinian areas is very dangerous and requires immediate international intervention to help steer the parties from the brink," he warned. "The international community must address itself to solve without delay the Arab-Israeli conflict."
U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, said the United States "remains not only an honest broker but an essential broker." But she said the Bush administration is not doing enough to push the process forward.
Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed Clinton's assessment, saying the United States has pursued a policy of being "a very cautious mediator" and hasn't gotten to "the heart of the problem."
About 2,700 participants at the five-day economic forum — ranging from corporate leaders to celebrities — are discussing U.S. foreign policy, its possible role in breeding terrorism and the down side of globalization. The topics are ample fodder for protesters, who continued the demonstrations with a march supporting animal rights Sunday afternoon.
The panel on Northern Ireland was moderated by George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who helped broker a historic 1998 peace agreement.
David Trimble, leader of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, said he is glad to see that the disarming of militants is under way and that "one wants to see it continue."
Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political party linked to the Irish Republican Army, said he believes most residents of Northern Ireland "are pleased with the progress we've made thus far."
Sunday's round of demonstrations against the forum produced a much lighter turnout than the demonstrations Saturday, which attracted as many as 7,000 people.
Police arrested 87 people on disorderly conduct charges Sunday afternoon after they blocked traffic in lower Manhattan, 3 miles from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel where the conference is taking place. Police arrested 46 people in the first three days of the forum.
Officers stopped animal rights protesters from marching toward the Waldorf later in the day after some broke a glass door and threw a red-paint filled balloon at an apartment building about a mile from the forum.
The procession of about 200 people was allowed to resume a short time later, but police then arrested 67 protesters and dispersed the march after some lay down on the street and refused to move.
The only demonstrators in sight near the hotel Sunday were 150 Falun Gong practitioners, bending and stretching in heavy winter coats to an ethereal music soundtrack.
"We're not here to protest, just to raise awareness about the persecution in mainland China" where the group is banned, said Lucy Zhao, 28, of Toronto.