JERUSALEM (Nov. 24)
The question of where the next round of Middle East peace talks will take place continued to be the main obstacle to the resumption of talks and was a new source of friction between the United States and Israel as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir returned Sunday from his 10-day visit to the United States.
Shamir made no secret of the fact that he was irked by the failure of the United States to consult with Israel before issuing invitations to Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians to resume their bilateral negotiations in Washington on Dec. 4.
But Shamir, speaking at an airport news conference, rejected Police Minister Ronni Milo’s earlier description of the slight as an “insulting ultimatum.”
Shamir said he had voiced “a certain complaint” about the procedure during his meeting with President Bush at the White House on Friday. He insisted, however, that there was no crisis of confidence between him and the U.S. president, only differences over the site of the talks.
‘INJURY AND OUTRAGE’
Officials said the prime minister and members of his Cabinet would discuss the situation over the next few days. Washington has requested a reply to the invitation by Monday, but it is not likely to get one from Israel by then.
Israel could delay its reply in order to convey the sense of “injury and outrage” felt in government circles when Washington saw fit to issue the invitations only hours before Shamir’s meeting with the president, without informing Shamir in advance.
But in the end, sources here said privately late Sunday, the talks will most probably resume in Washington on Dec. 4 as the Americans wish.
Jordan is the only invitee that accepted immediately. The Palestinians have not yet formally accepted the invitation, but have indicated that they will. The United States has heard nothing from Syria or Lebanon.
Shamir, for his part, prefers to play down the squabble with the Bush administration over venue and put the onus for the delay on the Arabs.
The Arabs, he told his news conference, do not want to talk directly to Israel, but to use Washington as a conduit to Israel.
“If indeed the Arabs’ attitude toward direct negotiations with Israel has really changed, the first expression of that should be a willingness to hold talks in the region,” the prime minister contended.
“But they are refusing to talk to us directly,” he said.
Israel held its first bilateral meetings with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in Madrid on Nov. 3, following the ceremonial opening of a Middle East peace conference under U.S. and Soviet auspices there on Oct. 30.
No date or place was agreed upon for subsequent meetings.
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker announced at the time that the United States would make its own recommendations if the parties could not reach agreement among themselves within two weeks.
The Arabs wanted the talks to continue in Madrid. Israel insisted they be held in the Middle East, alternating between sites in Israel and the Arab countries.
But the presence of Arab delegates in Israel would amount to de facto recognition, which the Arabs refuse to grant before Israel indicates it is willing to make territorial concessions for peace.
Israel is said to be prepared now to accept Cyprus as the locale of bilateral talks, a site it rejected two weeks ago.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, appearing on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday morning, said he could not understand why the administration was even engaged in a “nitpicking” discussion on the venue for the talks.
“I believe it is important for Israel and the United States to have serious substantive discussion about the nature of the process” Kissinger said.
He added that the Middle East diplomacy by the Bush administration has been “very impressive,” except for an “excessive concern with procedure.”
But Shamir left Washington concerned that there was excessive U.S. pressure on Israel to accept its offer of venue.
After a meeting with Baker on Thursday evening, Shamir said the question of the negotiating site was still open.
But even before Shamir met with Bush on Friday morning, the Palestinians announced they had already received an invitation from the administration to attend the negotiations in Washington.
Shamir left the White House maintaining that the site remained open to question. But about an hour later, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced that the invitations had been sent for Dec. 4 meetings in Washington.
‘AN IMPRESSION OF COOLNESS’
In an apparent gesture to the Israelis, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that “over time, there is no reason to exclude holding negotiations in the region.”
But Shamir stressed after the meeting that his talks with Bush were friendly.
During a picture-taking session with Bush, Shamir beamed as Bush expressed his respect “for this man.”
In a prerecorded interview with “Meet the Press,” Shamir denied he believed Bush has changed his opposition to a Palestinian state or to dividing Jerusalem.
He said he had told Bush that this was, however, the perception of the Arabs.
But Kissinger said that there has been “an impression of greater coolness (toward Israel) than has been the case.”