Israelis and Palestinians Ready to Move on to Substantive Talks

Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan appear to be close to moving from the State Department corridors into conference rooms, where they would begin actual negotiations next week.

Both Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli spokesman, and Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, agreed Thursday that the gap was narrowing between Israel’s insistence that it negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and the Palestinian demand that the two delegations be separate.

The issue now seems to be down to a matter of semantics. The Israelis want to open talks with the joint delegation before splitting up into separate delegations.

Ashrawi maintained that this condition has been satisfied by the meetings the heads of the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian delegations have had for three days.

The Palestinians want a separate delegation with a Jordanian included and a Jordanian delegation with a Palestinian member. The Israelis want the delegates to be split along agenda items, rather than ethnicity, since they maintain that some issues involve both the Jordanians and the Palestinians.

Although expressing optimism, Ashrawi charged that while the Palestinians had come to make peace with Israel, their fellow Palestinians at home, including families of the delegates, were being oppressed.

She specifically mentioned a “punitive curfew” in El-Birch and Ramallah, imposed last week after the fatal shooting of a Jewish settler, and the takeover by Jewish settlers of six Palestinian homes in the Arab village of Silwan, which is part of East Jerusalem.

“We want to save our people,” Ashrawi said. “We want to save Israel from its own actions.”

NO DECISION TO RETURN EARLY

But Netanyahu said Israel has a right to impose a curfew to protect law and order. He said the Silwan issue is now before the courts.

Netanyahu said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Israel’s talks with Syria and Lebanon since they were dealing with substantive issues.

But he saw no movement yet. Israel has been offering possible elements of a peace treaty with Lebanon, but the Lebanese are emphasizing U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Likewise, the Syrians have been focusing on their demand that Israel immediately agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights. But they have refused to discuss a peace treaty, Netanyahu said.

He said the talks with the Syrians were businesslike until the Israelis complained that Syrian Jews live under discrimination and asked that at least those with families outside Syria be allowed to join them.

The Syrians replied that there is no discrimination against Jews and that their condition is a Syrian internal matter.

Netanyahu said Israel still believes that the talks should be moved closer to the Middle East. He said that the more the talks deal with substantive issues, the more the Israeli delegation, at least, needs to be in constant communication with its government.

Nevertheless, the Israel delegation, which had planned to return home Thursday night, now will remain through next Wednesday, Netanyahu said.

This decision was revealed earlier in the day by Zalman Shoval, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, in an interview with Israel Radio.

In Jerusalem, there were reports Thursday that Yossi Ben-Aharon, head of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria, had asked the government to recall the delegations.

Ben-Aharon gave no sign of this after his meeting with the Syrians, pointing out that the two sides would meet again Monday.

He said there should not be any time limit on the talks. “The fact that we are talking in itself is a positive sign, and we hope that this will continue,” he said.

Even before the announcement here, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy went on Israel Television to warn against Israel leaving.

“We must not be the one to leave first, since we were the ones who came last,” Levy said. “We must not stand with a stopwatch in our hands, but rather we must exhaust the possibilities presented by the present Washington round.”

Political observers saw Levy’s television appearance as a continuation of his feud with Ben-Aharon, who is director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

An official in that office denied there had been any plan to end the talks by the weekend.

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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