U.S. Appears to Make Little Headway in Second Round of Talks with PLO

The State Department had no immediate comment Wednesday on the four-hour meeting the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia had with Palestine Liberation Organization representatives earlier in the day.

The meeting in the ancient Tunisian city of Carthage was the second formal session since the United States agreed to open a dialogue with the PLO last December and the first since the Bush administration came into office.

There was no indication in reports from Tunisia that the Bush administration had made any headway in its stated goal for the dialogue, the advancement of the peace process.

“The immediate objective is to create a political environment in which productive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis can be sustained, ” U.S. Ambassador Robert Pelletreau Jr. was quoted as saying after Wednesday’s meeting.

Secretary of State James Baker told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international operations Tuesday that one way the PLO could help bring this environment about “would be not to stand in the way of Palestinians in the occupied territories engaging in a dialogue with Israel.”

But Yasir Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine National Council executive committee who headed the three-member PLO delegation at Wednesday’s talks, said the only way to reach a settlement of the issues is through an international conference.

Rabbo, who is an official of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said the PLO would be willing to talk to Israel directly on arrangements for a conference, but stressed that this would not be negotiations.

BAKER CAN’T RULE OUT PLO ROLE

Israel rejects any participation by the PLO in the peace process and has criticized the U.S. dialogue with the organization.

Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir is expected to propose, when he meets President Bush on April 6, some sort of self-rule for the Palestinians. The residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be able to elect their own leaders.

But Rabbo said that holding elections while the territories are under Israeli “occupation” are “out of the question.”

In a statement issued after his appearance before the House subcommittee Tuesday, Baker said that the United States, in its dialogue with Israel and the PLO, “will be pressing for realism with regard to their views on the core issues of the conflict: territory for peace, security for Israel and Palestinian rights.

“We will be urging dialogue between Israel and Palestinians, to set the stage for negotiations on transitional arrangements and on final status of the occupied territories.”

Baker came under fire from three Jewish members of the subcommittee for suggesting last week that Israel may eventually have to talk to the PLO.

Rep. Larry Smith (D-Fla.) said this might work against the effort to have Palestinians in the territories agree to talk to Israel. Also pressing Baker were Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.).

“We have not made a policy statement that we are going to recommend to Israel that they negotiate with the PLO,” Baker said in response.

But, he added, it would be a mistake “for us to categorically, absolutely, totally and completely rule out, under any circumstances, any dialogue that might lead us toward peace.”

Pelletreau indicated Wednesday that he had again warned the PLO that several recent attempts by PLO groups to infiltrate Israel had not helped the U.S.-PLO dialogue.

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