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Palestinian Demand for Recognition Delays Resumption of Bilateral Talks

Round Two of the bilateral peace talks got off to a rocky start Tuesday, when the Palestinians insisted on negotiating with Israel separately from the Jordanian delegation.

The impasse prevented the Israel, talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation from starting as scheduled. But Israel did begin talks with Syria and with Lebanon.

The dispute over whether the Palestinians should negotiate with Israel as a separate delegation or together with Jordan appears to have more to do with how Israel and the Palestinians see the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip than with the current round of peace talks.

By insisting that Israel recognize the Palestinians as a separate delegation, the Palestinians were trying to establish “through procedure their claim as a separate state,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the spokesman for the Israeli delegation, said Tuesday.

Hanan Ashrawi, the spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, admitted as much when she quipped, “If we ask for a separate room, we are asking for a separate room, we are asking for a separate state.”

But Netanyahu, who a deputy minister in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, said the Palestinians would achieve their political entity only in some sort of confederation with Jordan.

He stressed that this issue is for the future, and the talks must now center on Israel’s proposal of an interim autonomy arrangement for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu and Ashrawi spoke at separate news conferences at their delegations’ hotels after the Palestinians refused to resume the negotiations begun last month in Madrid unless Israel met separately with Jordan and the Palestinians.

DIPLOMACY OVER SIPS OF COFFEE

As Elyakim Rubinstein, chairman of the Israeli delegation, sought to break the impasse with the Jordanian and Palestinian chairmen, the other delegates waited in the corridor, sipping coffee and talking to each other.

Despite the disagreement, the Jordanians and Palestinians were at least more friendly to the Israelis than one of the other Arab delegations.

Netanyahu said that during a break in the talks with one of the Arab delegations, which he refused to name, the Arabs refused to approach the coffee urn after the Israelis got there first.

The Palestinians maintain that the entire peace process envisioned a “two-track” approach, with talks between Israel and the Arab countries and between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ashrawi said the invitations to the participants as well as a letter of assurance to the Palestinians indicated this.

Netanyahu said it had always been clear that Israel would meet only with a joint delegation. But he stressed that once the talks started, the delegates could break up into subcommittees to deal with various issues.

“We are not a subcommittee,” Ashrawi said. “We are a full delegation” that wants to have “direct bilateral negotiations to discuss the issues.”

The United States seemed to back Israel’s claim, when State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday that only one conference room had been assigned for the Palestinians and Jordan to meet with Israel.

The negotiations are being held at the State Department, although the United States is not participating at present.

Netanyahu said that substantive issues were discussed in the separate negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, although he seemed more optimistic about Lebanon than Syria.

He said Israel has no territorial dispute with Lebanon and only wants to ensure the security of its northern border. This is why Israel maintains a security zone in southern Lebanon.

But no one expects Lebanon to reach an agreement with Israel without Syria’s approval. Syria, whose army now controls most of Lebanon, sabotaged a 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon worked out by George Shultz, who was then the U.S. secretary of state.

Yosef Ben-Aharon, chairman of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria, said after Tuesday’s talks that the Syrians continued to focus on their demand for a return of the Golan Heights.

“There is no Syrian willingness as yet to engage in any substantive exchange on the components of peace,” Ben-Aharon said.

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