Lebanese and Palestinians Agree to Talks, but Israel Holding out

Both Lebanon and the Palestinians on Monday accepted the U.S. invitation to resume the bilateral phase of peace talks in Washington on Dec. 4, leaving Israel and Syria the only holdouts among the parties who attended the first round of talks in Madrid on Nov. 3.

Jordan earlier accepted the invitation, which was issued as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arrived in Washington last week for talks with President Bush.

Israel has insisted on a Middle East venue for the talks, which brought it into conflict with the Bush administration as well as the Arab delegations.

Political observers here said Israel will most likely agree, reluctantly, to the American invitation, but with several conditions attached and not before midweek.

The delay is widely interpreted as Israel’s way of showing its profound displeasure over Washington’s failure to consult it before issuing the invitations only hours before Shamir’s White House meeting last Friday with Bush.

In Washington, the State Department seemed to go out of its way Monday to excuse Israel’s failure to respond by Nov. 25, the date on which the invited parties were asked to reply.

Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler cited Shamir’s late return to Israel from Washington on Sunday, which precluded a meeting of the Cabinet.

Considering Shamir’s tight schedule, she said, choosing the Nov. 25 date might have been an “oversight by somebody in the State Department” and if so, “I apologize.”

Tutwiler asserted, moreover, that Nov. 25 was “not a line drawn in sand.”

She announced Lebanon’s acceptance of the invitation. But word of the Palestinian reply had not reached the State Department at the time of her news briefing.

THREE CONDITIONS FROM ISRAEL

It was announced shortly after Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, adviser and spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, conveyed the Palestinian acceptance to the U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, Molly Williamson.

The Palestinians are said to consider the selection of Washington a victory for themselves, if only because Israel was strongly opposed.

Shamir is expected to take his time replying to Washington. The policy-making Inner Cabinet regularly meets on Wednesdays, and Shamir apparently intends to let it deliberate and vote on the matter before sending a reply to Washington.

Though the Israeli response will be favorable, it will be hedged by three conditions, sources here said.

Israel will insist that talks held in Washington are confined to procedural matters. That would put them on a par with the first round of bilateral meetings in Madrid with the Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian-Palestinian delegations.

The Syrians have insisted that the next set of bilateral talks include substantive as well as procedural matters.

Israel’s second condition is expected to be that the Washington talks not be held at the same time or in the same place with each delegation. Doing so might give them the air of an ongoing international conference, something Israel wants to avoid.

Finally, Israel will demand a clear undertaking that the talks will move to a site in or close to the Middle East “soon,” meaning after one or, at most, two rounds in Washington.

Israel originally wanted the bilateral negotiations to be held in the region, alternating between sites in Israel and the Arab countries. The Arabs refused on the grounds that doing so would grant Israel de facto recognition before negotiations start.

Israel is said to be willing to settle now for Cyprus, Greece or Turkey.

LOOPHOLES IN VISA LAW?

Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, the Gaza physician who heads the Palestinian delegation, said Monday that the Palestinians would like their “advisers” to receive the same status as the advisers of the other delegations when the talks move to Washington.

Abdel-Shafi’s request raised the problem of U.S. visas for members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who are barred by an act of Congress from entering the United States.

Aware of the situation, Abdel-Shafi conveyed his request as a “wish” rather than a condition. He said the Americans told the Palestinians they would “consider their view.”

When the subject was raised in Washington at Tutwiler’s news briefing, she indicated there were loopholes in the congressional statute.

The law gives Secretary of State James Baker discretion to deal with PLO applicants on a “case-by-case basis.” Tutwiler said that in the past, persons normally not welcome were admitted to conduct business in the United States or for medical or family reasons.

The official panel of advisers that accompanied the Palestinian delegation to Madrid was headed by activists Faisal Husseini and Ashrawi.

Though they remained outside the conference hall, they served, in fact, as liaison between the delegation and the PLO. Husseini and Ashrawi have been received by Baker in the past in East Jerusalem and in Washington.

While Israel considers them PLO supporters, they are not members of the PLO.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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