Talks with Palestinians Went Well, but Syrian Negotiations Strained

Israel’s first direct talks with Palestinians in Madrid went off remarkably well, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told Knesset members Monday.

The biggest threat to the future of peace negotiations is Syria, he made clear.

The initial round of talks was devoted to discussing where to told future bilateral sessions. Nothing apparently was settled on that score, Shamir told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Nevertheless, the session with the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was a historic breakthrough. It was the first time ever that Israelis and Palestinians negotiated around the same table in the context of formal diplomatic talks.

The talks began Sunday morning and ended early in the evening with a long break in the afternoon.

For the first event of its kind in history, it was successful, said Shamir, who was not present but had reports from his negotiating team.

Shamir led the Israeli delegation to Madrid for the ceremonial opening of the peace conference last week. He returned to Jerusalem on Friday and briefed his Cabinet on Sunday.

A FRIGID ATMOSPHERE

On Monday, he reported to the Knesset panel on the bilateral talks with the Palestinians. They were conducted by an Israeli negotiating team headed by Elyakim Rubinstein, the Cabinet secretary and one of Shamir’s most trusted aides.

They were held in a “positive, relaxed atmosphere” and jokes were exchanged by both sides, Shamir reported.

He said that contrary to published reports, the Jordanian-Palestinian team acted as one. Issues raised with one of the participants are discussed by the entire delegation, and the relevant party is free to express its own views, he said.

After hours of delay, the talks with the Syrian negotiators began Sunday evening and concluded in the wee hours of Monday morning. That Israeli delegation was headed by Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office and another of Shamir’s most senior aides.

Shamir described the talks as “correct,” which in diplomatic parlance connotes a frigid atmosphere. At times the head of the Syrian delegation even raised his voice, he reported.

The Syrians rejected all Israeli compromise proposals, Shamir said. One, for example, was to hold the bilateral talks on a rotating basis at Syrian and Israeli embassies in European capitals.

Syria also balked at Israel’s proposal that both countries announce their commitment to continue the talks and that the Syrians declare their recognition of the State of Israel.

Shamir described the Syrians as “very hard, very rough, very extreme.” He said they were “doing their utmost to foil any progress.”

But “they don’t always succeed,” the prime minister added. He said the Arab camp in general is divided, which is positive from Israel’s point of view because that prevents “the creation of a united front against Israel.”

Shamir warned, however, that there is no guarantee this situation will continue.

Asked if he would suspend settlement-building in the administered territories as a gesture of good will while peace talks are under way, Shamir said, “This should not be a gesture; this is part of the negotiations.”

What should be stopped is the intifada, he said. “The settlements should not be stopped.”

Shamir won a vote of confidence from his Cabinet on Sunday for his leadership of the Israeli delegation at the Madrid conference. At the Knesset committee meeting, he was praised by his two political opponents, Labor Party leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

“There is room for hope,” said Peres.

“This is a great opportunity,” echoed Rabin.

Shamir, meanwhile, is seeking to patch up his differences with Foreign Minister David Levy, who refused to go to Madrid after Shamir announced at the last minute that he would personally head the Israeli delegation.

The two men met for a half-hour Sunday and agreed to meet again Tuesday or Wednesday.

Levy denied reports that he ordered his Foreign Ministry people to return from Madrid on Monday. Reports of a Foreign Ministry walkout are “imagination,” he said, adding that there were about 20 Foreign Ministry officials still in the Spanish capital.

Levy rejected a proposal by Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting to appoint Levy’s archrival, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to be minister of information, in recognition of his masterful organization of Israeli propaganda at Madrid.

“Information does not create policy,” Levy remarked. “When the policy is good, so is the information.”

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