Multilateral Talks to Be Expanded into Conference on Regional Issues

The United States is looking to Western Europe and Japan to help it meet the diplomatic and financial burdens of the Middle East peace process.

This is the explanation one Israeli official gave as to why Secretary of State James Baker has apparently decided to expand the planned Arab-Israeli negotiations on regional issues into a major international conference that would also include countries from outside the Middle East.

While the State Department stresses that no final agreement on such a conference has been reached, it is expected to be held next month in Europe, with Baker and the other foreign ministers attending.

The gathering reportedly would be sort of a repeat of the conference held in Madrid, with the countries involved splitting into mini-conferences on five separate regional issues, much as they did with the three sets of bilateral talks that began in Madrid.

Those bilateral talks are now on hold, until an agreement can be reached on where and when to resume them. Baker said that if the parties cannot agree on a venue for the talks, he will suggest one.

Washington is thought to be the site most likely to be selected by Baker, although several sources have cautioned that this is not yet a certainty.

Israel still wants the separate bilateral talks with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to be held in the region, alternating between an Israeli site and Arab locations. But if the Arabs continue to refuse, the Israelis are expected to agree to Washington.

BUSH TO MEET WITH SHAMIR

The Palestinians are demanding that representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization be given entry visas if the talks are held in Washington. And the Syrians are demanding that they be taken off the U.S. list of terrorist nations as a price for their attendance.

The United States has so far refused both demands.

All of these issues may become clearer when Baker returns from Asia next week. But a formal announcement about the next round of peace talks may not be made until after President Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Washington on Nov. 22.

Shamir arrived was to arrive in the United States on Friday for major talks in Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore. After his Nov. 21 address to the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Baltimore, he will come to Washington.

The five regional issues to be discussed at the multilateral talks are arms control, water, economic development, the environment and refugee problems. The latter would include not only Palestinian refugees but also those left stateless by the Persian Gulf War.

The Bush administration believes that the Europeans and other outside countries must be involved in the arms control talks, because they are major suppliers of weapons to the region, and any accord is pointless without their cooperation.

Japan and Europe are also needed to help with whatever financial resources are needed to bring about the various peace agreements.

But another reason for outside involvement, one official explained, is that this is likely to be the most complex set of international negotiations since the end of World War I.

Three sets of bilateral negotiations and five sets of multilateral talks on regional issues, all going on for at least a year, will put an enormous strain on U.S. diplomatic resources, which the Europeans will be asked to share, the official said.

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