U.S. Consulting with Mideast Parties About Where to Resume Bilateral Talks

The United States will be negotiating with the various Middle East parties over the next two weeks to try to reach agreement on the location and timing of the next round of bilateral peace talks.

Secretary of State James Baker told reporters at a briefing here Tuesday that if there is no agreement on a site within two weeks, “we will feel free to submit proposals.”

“We’ll be talking with the parties to these talks to see if they can make progress in resolving the question of venue. I’m optimistic that there might be some chance for agreement between Israel, on the one hand, and at least one delegation,” he said.

But he added that it will take at least two weeks for these consultations to take place.

Israel wants the separate bilateral talks with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, to rotate between Israeli and Arab cities. But the Arabs prefer a neutral destination, such as Madrid.

Baker said that the United States would be willing to “participate in the talks themselves,” if the parties desire such involvement. “We would be pleased if they wanted us to submit ideas and suggestions,” regardless of “whether we are in the room or not,” he said.

The secretary also took an opportunity at his briefing here Tuesday to criticize Israel for reopening an abandoned kibbutz Monday on the Golan Heights.

Such actions do nothing to “help the negotiating process” between Arabs and Israelis, he said. “It’s hard for us to see how inaugurating a new settlement now can help the negotiating process that we’ve just finished launching.”

SHARON CONDEMNS MADRID TALKS

When asked by a reporter if Israel was trying to sabotage the peace process and specifically the historic Israeli-Syrian negotiations that began late Sunday, Baker refused to speculate on the motive.

“Steps or actions that are provocative, or unilateral steps that would be seen by one side or the other as provocative, whether they are provocative or not, are hardly likely, I think, to build the kind of climate that would serve the cause of peace,” he said.

The settlement, at Kibbutz Kelah, was abandoned two years ago and taken over by Nahal, a branch of the Israel Defense Force. Recently the IDF returned the settlement to civilian control and found 22 families, all Soviet immigrants, willing to move into its buildings.

In Israel, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon used the occasion of the settlement dedication ceremony Monday to denounce the peace talks in Madrid as a “colossal political mistake.”

Sharon was one of the three right-wing Cabinet members who opposed Israel’s participation in the Madrid conference and the only Likud minister to vote against it. He maintained that Israel would regret its decision even though it scored some public relations points.

Although Israel’s first-ever direct diplomatic contact with the Syrians in Madrid on Sunday night was described as frigid, it represented a historic breakthrough.

But according to Sharon, it was an abomination. He raged against the “dictatorial” regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad, which he called “as bad as that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, if not worse.”

He accused the Syrians of all manner of atrocities against Jews, including the alleged massacre of Israeli prisoners of war.

Asked by foreign reporters whether it was not provocative to dedicate a Jewish settlement on former Syrian soil just as peace talks were starting, Sharon replied that the Syrians were the provocateurs. He referred to Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa’s personal attack on Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Madrid last Friday.

Kelah will be settled initially by 22 new Soviet immigrant families, all members of the right-wing Betar movement. They are to form a nucleus of a new 300-home community.

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)

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