Plan to Upgrade Regional Talks is Source of Worry for Israelis

Israeli officials are expressing discomfort with Washington’s plans to turn the multinational phase of the Middle East peace talks into an elaborate international conference on regional issues.

Israel has already conveyed to Washington its disquiet over U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s intention of opening such a conference with great fanfare either later this month or early in December.

Foreign Minister David Levy, who will head the Israeli delegation to the multinational talks, wrote to Baker this week about Israel’s concerns and demanded that Israel be consulted on the format and procedures of the negotiations.

The subject is likely to be high on the agenda of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s White House meeting with President Bush on Nov. 22. Shamir left Thursday night on a 10-day visit to the United States that will also include stops in Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore and New York.

The multilateral talks were originally planned as the third stage of the peace conference that opened Oct. 30 in Madrid. But now, officials here fear, the talks are shaping up to be just the sort of international peace conference Israel has tried desperately for years to avoid.

Israel was, in fact, eager to meet with the Arab states collectively to discuss regional issues of mutual concern, such as the environment and water resources.

But those talks were to be completely divorced from the direct, bilateral negotiations Israel would hold separately with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The bilateral talks indeed got under way in Madrid, though little substantive was discussed and no dates have yet been set for the next encounters.

MEETING SET WITH SAUDI ENVOY

Now Israel fears it will be surrounded at the multinational talks by the Arab states and major powers from outside the region that have not notably challenged Arab demands.

Baker is said to be planning a high-profile opening in Moscow or another European capital. He hopes to bring to it the foreign ministers of the European Community, Japan and Canada, along with the Persian Gulf states and the Maghreb countries: Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

The American purpose is to get this array of nations to share the financial burdens arising from costly regional development schemes expected to emerge from the multilateral talks.

But Israeli policy-makers fear the close involvement of the international community in regional cooperation issues could turn into pressure on political matters Israel insists can only be settled at the negotiating table.

Specifically, they are concerned that, with offers of cash and other backing from the leading industrial nations, it will be difficult for Israel to resist pressure to agree to a settlement freeze, in exchange for termination of the Palestinian intifada and the Arab boycott against Israel.

The multilateral conference is likely to be among the topics discussed when members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meet in New York on Monday morning with the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency learned of plans for the meeting Thursday, which were later confirmed by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have reacted pessimistically to reports of Bush’s meeting in New York on Tuesday with members of the Conference of Presidents and other prominent American Jewish leaders.

Bush was anxious to calm the tensions that arose between his administration and pro-Israel forces in Washington over Israel’s request in September for U.S. guarantees covering $10 billion in loans needed to resettle Soviet immigrants.

But the president would make no commitment on the guarantees until the 120-day moratorium he imposed on consideration of the issue expires in January.

Officials here concede privately that a breakthrough on the loan issue is unlikely at Shamir’s meeting next week with Bush.

But they are expected to discuss the venue of the bilateral talks. The Arabs reject Israel’s proposal that they alternate between Israel and Arab capitals.

Israel and Syria both have reservations about Washington.

Turkey and Cyprus have been suggested. Both are in geographical proximity to the Middle East but politically are not considered part of the region.

NEXT STORY