Israel and Palestinians at Odds on Representation at Peace Talks

While Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir believes there is a good chance a Middle East peace conference can still be convened before the end of the month, he is stressing that Israel will not participate until the issue of Palestinian representation is solved to his satisfaction.

“The prime minister assessed the chances for the opening meeting of direct negotiations at the end of the month as very good, but there are still several problems, such as the composition of the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation,” Shamir’s office said in a statement Friday.

Officials close to the premier emphasized that Israel reserves the right to walk out of the conference if a Palestinian delegate is plainly seen to be taking orders from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In Washington, meanwhile, Israeli diplomats are continuing to joust with Bush administration officials over the language of a U.S. letter of understanding that will guarantee conference terms acceptable to Israel.

The Americans are also attempting to produce a document to satisfy the Palestinians that does not conflict with promises made to Israel.

The United States and Soviet Union hope to convene the conference opening before the end of this month. It might be chaired jointly by President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. More likely, the two heads of state will issue the invitations in their names and the actual chairing will be on the foreign ministerial level.

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker is expected to distribute the invitations on his next visit to the region, the timing of which apparently depends on how soon Washington overcomes the remaining obstacles with the Israelis and Palestinians.

JORDANIAN TALKS WITH THE PLO

President Bush told a White House news conference Friday that “no dates have been set, and a lot depends on what happens in the next couple of weeks as to whether such a conference will take place” in October.

There has been a flurry of conference-related activity in Jordan, where senior PLO officials met Friday with Prime Minister Taher al-Masri and the new Jordanian foreign minister, Kamel Abu Jaber.

“They have been putting us in the picture about the PNC,” the American-educated Abu Jaber, who took office last week in a Cabinet reshuffle, was quoted as saying.

He was referring to the meeting in Algiers last month of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, which approved of the peace conference in principle but awaits U.S. assurances before it sanctions delegates to attend.

Some of those technicalities may be cleared up in talks between Baker and two Palestinian leaders with whom he has conferred on each of his seven visits to Jerusalem since March: Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.

The two returned to Israel on Sunday and said they had been invited to meet in Washington this week with Baker, to work out the wording of the U.S. letter of assurances to the Palestinians.

During a news conference at Husseini’s East Jerusalem residence, the two stressed that the composition of the Palestinian delegation to the peace conference is not up for negotiation.

“The Palestinian delegation is Palestinian business,” said Husseini. “No one will interfere, no lists will be sent to anyone, and it will not be subject to a veto.”

The two Palestinians refused to comment on whether they had gone to the PNC meeting in Algiers, which would violate an Israeli law barring contact with the PLO by Jews or Arabs.

Last week, the two issued an outright denial that they had gone to Algiers. But the news media last month placed them at the PNC conference and, in fact, credited them with getting it to endorse the proposed peace conference.

Israel’s right wing is demanding their prompt arrest and prosecution, despite the key role that they are playing in the peace process.

NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE LIKELY TO FAIL

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Shamir formally denied media reports that he intended to “look the other way” because the Americans regard Husseini and Ashrawi as legitimate representatives of the Palestinians in the administered territories.

Shamir deftly discouraged a full-scale Cabinet debate on the peace conference, which would have given a forum to the three far-right parties in his coalition. They oppose Israel’s participation and have threatened to quit the government if it agrees to attend.

But those parties — Tehiya, Moledet and Tsomet — are not expected to join the leftist opposition Monday in a Knesset vote of no confidence. If they did, the motion might carry, forcing Shamir to resign and call for early elections.

Some in the Labor Party, the largest opposition faction, reportedly hope the no-confidence challenge fails, because otherwise it would give Shamir an opportunity to defer the peace conference without being blamed.

Should the conference materialize this month, the United States is said to favor Switzerland as its venue.

In Geneva, Swiss sources mentioned two possible sites: Lausanne, which has already hosted Middle East peace talks, and Montreux, a summer resort about an hour’s drive from Geneva. Both have luxurious hotels and large meeting halls to accommodate the diplomats.

Geneva itself, historic site of world peace and disarmament conferences, is not satisfactory to Israel, because it is where U.N. European headquarters are located. Israel distrusts the world organization and insists it have nothing whatsoever to do with Middle East peace talks.

Yuval Ne’eman, Israel’s minister of science and energy, expressed the attitude of his Tehiya party Sunday, saying the conference venue ought to be Munich, a symbol of craven appeasement since 1938, when Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, in a vain attempt to prevent war.

(JTA correspondent Tamar Levy in Geneva contributed to this report.)

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