LONDON (Jun. 19)
President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia has succeeded in winning the tacit approval of most Arab states and of the Palestinian guerrilla leadership for his plan to initiate Middle East peace talks with Israel, the London Times reported here today. The Tunisian leader also sounded out American reaction to the plan before he made it public in interviews with two Italian newspapers last month, the report said.
The Times, quoting well-placed Tunisian sources, said Bourguiba has made his peace initiative the spearhead of his foreign policy. It added that secret contacts with the Israelis are expected to be held in Geneva where Bourguiba. his foreign minister and top aides now are.
Israel’s initial reaction to the Bourguiba move was that it was not serious, although Premier Golda Meir said subsequently that she was willing to meet with any Arab leader to discuss peace. The casual manner in which the Tunisian leader announced his plan through the press bellied months of groundwork that led up to it, the Times said.
According to the Times, Egyptian approval was won. Later Tunisian Foreign Minister Muhammad-Masmoudi discussed the broad outlines of the plan with El Fatah leader Yassir Arafat during a visit to Beirut last month. While the Palestinian guerrilla movement brushed off the idea, its leadership is understood to have shown intense interest in it after prodding by King Faisal, of Saudi Arabia, who supports the Bourguiba move.
One of the two preconditions set by Bourguiba for talks with the Israelis was recognition of the national aspirations of the Palestinians.
The other was the 1947 partition plan boundaries as a starting point for territorial talks. That is obviously unacceptable to Israel but Bourguiba is understood to be flexible on the point.
He is said to envisage a meeting between himself and Premier Golda Meir to begin with or, if that is not possible, talks on the foreign ministerial level. Once the first step has been taken, he expects to bring in the principal Arab parties–Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Bourguiba envisages Tunisia playing a behind-the-scenes role during the talks.
One stumbling block to the initiative is the adamant attitude of Libya against any peace moves with Israel. Another is that Israel is not likely to accept Tunis as a mediating country because it is an Arab state committed to the Arab cause. Bourguiba, who has many Jewish friends, hopes this attitude can be overcome.