Begin Welcomes Idea for Preliminary Meeting of Middle East Foreign Ministers to Prepare Geneva Talks

Premier Menachem Begin said today that he welcomed proposals for a preliminary meeting of Middle East Foreign Ministers under American auspices this fall “to prepare the ground” for reconvening the Geneva conference.

The proposal was unveiled by President Anwar Sadat at a press conference in Alexandria yesterday following two days of talks with U.S. Secretary of State Vance. The Egyptian leader reportedly rejected certain American proposals regarding the nature of a Middle East peace and the pace of Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories.

Begin, interviewed by Israel Radio, described the idea of a foreign ministers’ meeting as “very constructive.” He said that he had, in fact, made the very same suggestion during his visit to Washington last month but would not criticize Sadat for claiming credit. Now that Sadat has agreed that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan would sit at the same table, “This is something to welcome,” Begin said.

WILL TRY TO REMOVE OBSTACLES

Sadat’s idea was accepted by Vance who appeared with the Egyptian President at their televised news conference. Vance said he would try to persuade Syria, Jordan and Israel to join Egypt in a working group that would meet under his auspices in Washington and New York next month. Vance indicated that the task of these meetings would be to remove the obstacles to the Geneva conference.

The most formidable of these appears to be Palestinian representation. Israel has categorically rejected PLO participation in any peace talks. Sadat, who has said he had alternatives in mind to deal with this issue, disclosed that during his talks with Vance he received a message from PLO chief Yasir Arafat reminding the Arab states that they had agreed at their 1974 summit meeting in Rabat that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

The PLO executive committee, meeting in Beirut Monday night, issued a statement demanding independent representation for their group at all Arab and international levels dealing with the Middle East and the Palestinian issue.

The proposed meeting of foreign ministers would by its very nature exclude the PLO since it would be limited to sovereign states. Observers here and abroad said today that chances for such a meeting hinged on its acceptance by Syria. Vance flew to Damascus today after a brief stopover at Beirut for a meeting with President Elias Sarkis of Lebanon. He is expected to discuss Sadat’s proposal with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

BACKGROUND OF IDEA

The idea of preliminary talks to work out the basis of a peace agreement to be reached at Geneva originated with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during his Middle East diplomatic efforts in 1975. Begin’s “peace plan,” which he presented to President Carter at their White House meetings July 19-20 and later mode public in part, suggested three alternatives to resume the political momentum in the Mideast.

These were: resumption of the Geneva conference–Begin suggested Oct. 10 as a likely date–bilateral talks to be held in Middle East capitals or on neutral ground along the lines of the 1949 Rbodes Armistice talks or “proximity talks” in New York where Israeli and Arab delegates would negotiate indirectly with the U.S. in the role of intermediary.

The latter suggestion would seem to most closely approximate the proposed meeting of foreign ministers except that the ministers would meet face-to-face. It would coincide with the presence of foreign ministers in New York attending the opening sessions of the UN General Assembly. But Sadat’s proposal and Vance’s endorsement of it did not imply a UN role.

President Carter has himself suggested a meeting of foreign ministers while the General Assembly is in session but he has also expressed optimism that the Geneva conference could be reconvened this fall. However, the tone of Sadat’s and Vance’s remarks in Alexandria seemed to indicate that a Geneva meeting in the near future was unlikely.

SADAT PRESENTS HIS VIEW

Sadat flatly rejected Vance’s proposal that a Geneva agreement incorporate normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a key point in Carter’s delineation of the nature of a Mideast peace, as well as the idea that Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories be conducted in gradual stages over a period of five years. The Egyptian leader was said to have insisted that the Israeli pullback be completed within six months of signing a treaty.

Sadat said that while he was “willing to sign a peace agreement with Israel tomorrow” ending the state of belligerency between the countries, the question of diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, cultural and tourist exchanges, could be considered only after a peace settlement was concluded at Geneva.

Nevertheless, Sadat was conciliatory on other matters. He said he had no objections to Fahmy sitting at the same table with Dayan. He was also moderate in his remarks about Begin’s various proposals. “To be frank, there are some positive elements, but also negative elements and we should work all of us to bring the whole thing together,” Sadat said. The Jordanian newspaper Al Ahbar reported today that representatives of Egypt, Syria and Jordan will meet later this month to work out a joint position regarding the latest political developments.

In Beirut today, Vance was reported to have offered Lebanon $25 million in U.S. military sales credits to help rebuild the Lebanese army badly mauled in that country’s civil war. He also reportedly sounded out Sarkis on proposals to station United Nations forces near the Israeli border in southern Lebanon.

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