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By Ora Coren

The United States has again asked Israel to remove all trade barriers on agricultural imports from America. The demand was raised in advance of the next round of bilateral economic talks, says Zohar Peri, deputy director for foreign trade at the Industry and Trade Ministry.

In 1996, Washington asked Israel to completely open its local market to American farm produce. Israel refused, but agreed to grant U.S. imports preferential treatment relative to other countries. These understandings were anchored in a five-year agreement, which expires at the end of this year.

America bases its demand on international trade pacts that prohibit restrictions on agricultural commerce. But the United States, itself, maintains import restrictions on a number of agricultural products, including peanuts and cheese.

Israel is likely to again reject the U.S. call for removing all restrictions on American farm products, but will probably expand the special exemptions granted in the earlier agreement. As a result, more American agricultural products are expected to find their way to Israel, including wine, frozen chicken, almonds, walnuts and fruits.

The bilateral trade talks were to take place in April, but the Bush administration asked to postpone them until early May. The U.S. trade negotiators have now asked for another postponement. A new date has not yet been set.

When the bilateral talks get under way, Israel will ask to preserve its rights as the country of origin for products that indirectly enter the North American market. For example, Israel wants to maintain the tax-exempt status of locally produced textiles, even if they are processed in Caribbean countries before arriving in North America.