WASHINGTON (Dec. 18)
During two weeks of fruitless bilateral negotiations here, Israelis and Arabs seemed more interested in talking to U.S. public opinion than to each other.
This was especially true in the dispute that arose when the Palestinians demanded that Israel negotiate with them separately, rather than as part of a joint delegation with Jordan.
To present their opposing cases, both sides sent spokespersons here who have demonstrated skillful use of the news media in the past and, perhaps more important, can do it in fluent understandable English.
For the Israelis, it was Benjamin Netanyahu, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who previously served Israel in Washington and at the United Nations. For the Palestinians, it was Hanan Ashrawi, an English professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
While both were familiar to American television audiences, they really came to the fore at the peace conference in Madrid, which launched the negotiations.
Ashrawi was said by some to have done more for the Palestinian cause in a few days at Madrid that Yasir Arafat has done in his decades of leading the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But in Washington, the Arab-Israeli peace talks, which adjourned Wednesday, were overshadowed by other news, from the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith to the collapse of the Soviet central government.
The Palestinians especially bemoaned the lack of media coverage. While Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of “sound-bite” diplomacy. Ashrawi bitterly complained that the Palestinian message had not gotten on television.
While opposing the Israeli demand that talks be moved to the Middle East, Ashrawi quipped that there would be more coverage there since the region is always a news “hot spot.”
PREFERENCE FOR QUIET DIPLOMACY
The Israelis have continually maintained they would prefer quiet diplomacy.
Elyakim Rubinstein, chairman of the Israeli delegation for the talks with the Palestinians and Jordan, argued Tuesday that the 1978 Camp David talks were successful because they were held for 13 days in seclusion, without the news media.
Although the Israelis want quite diplomacy, Netanyahu said Tuesday he knew how to play the media game, too.
Both Netanyahu and Ashrawi sought to blame the other side for failing to agree on procedure. And they have accused each other of delaying tactics, what Netanyahu has called “talk-busters.”
But they also used their media platforms to blame part of the deadlock on what was occurring back in Israel and the administered territories.
Ashrawi used every briefing to charge that Palestinians continue to be oppressed through curfews and such events as the takeover of six Arab homes by Jewish settlers in the East Jerusalem enclave of Silwan.
Netanyahu charged that Palestinians in the territories were trying to sabotage the peace talks by stepping up terrorist activities, including attacks on Palestinians.
Since the Madrid conference, Israel has uncovered 100 terrorist cells, arresting some 500 people, Netanyahu said.
Meanwhile, the United States sought to keep from being drawn into the procedural dispute, despite the Palestinians’ desire to have Washington settle the issue.
The Israelis have charged continually that the Palestinians and the other Arabs want the United States to “deliver” Israeli concessions. One of the reasons the Israeli delegation waited five days after the official start of the talks to come to Washington was to demonstrate that Israel cannot be delivered.
But the Bush administration, which has been taking a hands-off approach, appeared to be running out of patience Tuesday.
President Bush, in a White House meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, said it was time for both sides to stop debating procedure and begin substantive negotiations.
TALKS TO RESUME JAN. 7
Edward Djerejian, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told reporters that both sides have been given this “message.”
“We share the president’s sentiments entirely,” Netanyahu said later.
Levy told reporters that the peace process “was first and foremost an Israeli initiative. We are deeply interested in promoting the process.”
He said Bush agreed with him that “the peace process is not a matter for others, but for those concerned.” Bush also affirmed the “principle of direct negotiations without preconditions,” Levy said.
The Israeli delegation was scheduled to depart Washington late Wednesday. While the talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation adjourned without resolving the procedural dispute, Rubinstein said the two sides agreed to resume Jan. 7. But the venue must still be decided.
No date was set for the resumption of Israel’s talks with Syria and Lebanon. But they, too, are expected to resume after the new year.
At a final briefing Wednesday at which Netanyahu was joined by the chairmen of the three Israeli negotiating teams, the Israelis all stressed that the Washington talks had not been “wasted time,” even though none of the Arab delegations had moved from its stated position.
The Israelis spent 30 hours in talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, 19 hours with the Lebanese and 16 with the Syrians.
During this time, both sides had a chance to understand each other’s concerns and positions, as well as to know each other as individuals, Netanyahu said.
This was true even of the Syrians, said Yosef Ben-Aharon, chairman of the Israeli team negotiating with the Syrians. But he said the Syrians maintained their hard line and believed that by just mentioning the word “peace” the Israelis would “swoon” and agree to leave the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu cautioned everyone, especially the media, to have patience as the second round of bilateral talks ended. “This was the first lap in a very long journey,” he said.