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Israel Sticking with Its Decision to Stay Away from Talks Wednesday

Israel is sticking for now with its decision to stay away from the bilateral peace talks slated to resume in Washington on Wednesday.

The Cabinet on Sunday backed Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s suggestion that the talks convene instead on Dec. 9, five days later than the date proposed by the United States and accepted last week by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

While officials here would not rule out the possibility of a face-saving compromise, the Cabinet’s decision left the prospect that Israel would be the only one of the Middle East parties not to show up Wednesday in Washington, in what undoubtedly would be seen as a propaganda victory for the Arab side.

In Washington, President Bush made clear on Friday that the next round of bilateral talks, which began in Madrid on Nov. 3, would open Wednesday, whether or not Israel takes part.

When asked where that second round stood, Bush told reporters during a Christmas shopping trip, “There’s going to be one. I don’t know who’s going to show up.”

Israel’s refusal to attend the talks on Wednesday, while officially explained as a request for additional preparation time, has been widely interpreted as an expression of Israel’s displeasure over the way Shamir was treated during his visit to Washington two weeks ago.

Shamir had planned to discuss Israel’s concerns about the location of the next round of the bilateral negotiations during his White House meeting with Bush on Nov. 22. But the evening beforehand, the State Department sent out invitations asking the various Middle East parties to come to Washington on Dec. 4.

WEEKEND DIPLOMACY FAILS

Washington’s failure to consult with Israel on the timing and location was seen here not only as a personal slap in the face to Shamir, but also as an indication that the United States plans to become actively involved in the peace talks whenever deadlocks arise.

The Bush administration had asked the Middle East parties to respond to its invitations by Nov. 25. Instead, Israel’s Inner Cabinet replied two days later that it would agree to one or two meetings in Washington, but only on Dec. 9.

Syria and the Palestinian delegation, which also had not replied to the U.S. invitations, promptly indicated they would attend the talks on Dec. 4. Jordan and Lebanon had already agreed to that date.

In an attempt to defuse the issue, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, met Friday with officials at the State Department, and diplomatic contacts were said to have continued over the weekend.

But Cabinet sources here said that if anything, the exchange with Washington had made matters worse.

Shoval reportedly had sought a firm commitment from the administration that it would publicly support Israel’s demand to shift the bilateral talks to the Middle East or nearby after one or, at most, two rounds of talks in Washington.

But the State Department would only affirm its support, in principle, for holding the talks “in the region at the appropriate time,” without specifying that time.

LOW-LEVEL TEAM MAY BE SENT

Moreover, Shoval reportedly was told that the administration intends to come up with its own peace proposals in the event of ongoing disagreement among the parties.

That confirmed Israeli fears that the Arabs would be able to sidestep direct talks with Israel by negotiating with the United States and then relying on it to pressure Jerusalem.

“The major issue is not a few days here or a few days there,” Shoval told reporters outside the State Department on Friday. “The major issue is that the Arabs, including the Palestinians, do not want to talk to us directly.”

Shamir told the Cabinet on Sunday that diplomatic contacts with Washington had not provided any reason for Israel to change its opposition to the Dec. 4 date. He suggested it was time to give Washington a “signal.”

Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, summed up the sentiment of the Cabinet in an interview with army radio.

“The way this thing is being conducted by the United States very much bothers us and outrages us,” he said. The Arabs “have the impression that the United States is on their side.”

Shamir admitted that Israel could suffer a black eye in world public opinion if it stays home from the peace talks on Wednesday. But he added that “hasbara” (public relations) considerations could not always be the major determinant of Israeli policy.

Sources here said that Israel might still send a low-level team of diplomats to Washington for the talks Wednesday. There is also the possibility that a team of officials led by Benjamin Netanyahu might be dispatched there to offset the Arab propaganda victory arising from Israel’s failure to attend the talks at the proper level on the appointed day.

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