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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Urges Syria to Complete Deal

JERUSALEM -- The United States and Israel pressed Syria on Wednesday to complete a peace deal before Israeli elections in the autumn as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher began a new round of shuttle diplomacy.

Christopher, arriving in Jerusalem on his 16th Middle East tour, urged Israel and Syria to speed up their peace talks, saying the negotiations had reached a "critical point."

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the two countries had "only a few months" to seal an accord before Israeli national elections scheduled for October. Those elections could bring to power right-wingers skeptical of peace with Syria.

Christopher said it was essential for the longtime foes to make progress on issues following talks held over the past two weeks near Washington.

"We've come to a critical point in the negotiations where they need to begin to coalesce on some of the main issues, they need to bring them together and move forward in an intensified pace," he said.

Little progress has been made in more than four years of sporadic Israeli-Syrian negotiations on terms for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, future security arrangements and relations between the two countries.

After 24 hours in Israel, Christopher planned to visit Damascus on Thursday for talks with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, return to Israel on Friday and possibly pay a second visit to Syria before flying back to Washington on Sunday.

On Wednesday evening, Christopher was to attend a meeting with Peres and King Hussein of Jordan in northern Israel, aimed at honoring negotiators who worked out an Israeli-Jordanian peace deal in 1994.

Hundreds of Israelis lined the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday to greet Hussein, here to honor his slain partner in peace and cement the new friendship between the two countries.

Hussein joined the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Leah, at a ceremony to rename the trauma center where doctors struggled after Rabin was shot to save his life.

In other developments, Israel freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners Wednesday under a self-rule deal with the PLO just days before the first Palestinian national elections, witnesses said.

The first batch of 35 inmates kissed the ground and hugged anxious relatives after being bussed to an Israeli military checkpoint on the northern West Bank border with Israel.

They were among some 800 prisoners, including members of Islamic and leftist groups opposed to Israeli-PLO peace moves, due to be freed by the end of the day in various parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Under an accord signed with the PLO last September, Israel agreed to free 1,200 prisoners ahead of Palestinian elections Jan. 20. Most were jailed for resisting Israeli occupation.

?Israeli media defied military censors Wednesday by publishing the name of the new head of the Shin Bet, the secret service disgraced by Rabin's assassination.

Security sources confirmed Rear Admiral Ami Ayalon, 50, Israel's navy commander until his retirement 10 days ago, was Peres' choice to replace the Shin Bet chief who quit Monday.

The previous chief was known only by the Hebrew initial "Kaf." His full name, like that of his predecessors, is regarded as a state secret.