Bush Frustrated by Lack of Progress Achieved at Peace Talks in Washington

President Bush said Thursday that he is frustrated with the lack of progress achieved by Israeli and Arab negotiators during two weeks of peace talks here, which recessed Wednesday.

They spent much of the time talking “about where the next meeting is going to be,” Bush complained to a group of mainly foreign journalists in the Old Executive Office Building. “I was disappointed,” he said.

But even as he spoke, the Israeli delegation arrived back in Jerusalem with a relatively upbeat message.

“The talks did not fail,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as spokesman for the Israeli negotiating teams in Washington.

And Yossi Ben-Aharon, who headed the delegation that spent more than 16 hours with the hard-nosed Syrians, seemed to consider it an accomplishment that the talks were held at all.

“We are speaking together, that much I can say,” he told reporters in Israel.

Yossi Hadass, co-chairman of the delegation negotiating with Lebanon, gave the most optimistic appraisal of the talks to date.

He said the atmosphere of the meetings with the Lebanese was positively friendly and hinted they might get into substantive matters when their talks resume. He said that would be in the second week of January.

WARNING AGAINST VIOLENCE

But Bush, whose administration spent months engineering the peace talks, was skeptical of the results to date.

“I’m told some progress was made. Don’t quiz me on that,” he told reporters.

“I felt that a lot of time was spent talking about modalities and locations, and obviously we would have liked to see more progress, and we shared those observations with the various participants,” he said.

Bush did not differentiate between Israel’s talks with Syrian and Lebanese negotiators, which delved into substantive issues, and the more procedural talks with Palestinians and Jordanians.

In those, the heads of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian delegations sat on a couch in a State Department corridor for six days trying to resolve a dispute over whether the Arab delegations would meet as one or separately with Israel.

“That’s one of the reasons I express frustration about talks that talk only about where the next meeting is going to be,” Bush said.

But he noted that the parties are trying to resolve their disputes in a “peaceful manner,” saying “thank God” such talks have begun.

The president warned the parties they will not be able to reach peace “by acts of violence on one side or another.”

Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan have agreed to resume talks Jan, 7 at a place to be decided later. Syria and Lebanon have agreed to meet the Israelis after the new year, but neither the date nor place has been named.

Israel has urged a Middle East venue from the outset. The Arabs, wary of giving Israel any sense of recognition, want the talks to stay in Washington or anywhere but the Middle East.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials would not confirm reports that when the talks resume, the venue will be Washington again.

Netanyahu stressed that Israel wants to be closer to home because of the physical and logistical burdens of long-distance commuting.

MOSCOW TALKS STILL ON

In Brussels, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker affirmed Thursday that multilateral talks on Middle East regional issues will take place in Moscow next month as planned.

The talks, slated for Jan. 28-29, will focus on solving such regional problems as faltering economies, acute water shortages and weapons proliferation.

Baker dismissed speculation that because of the political turmoil in the Soviet Union, the venue might be shifted to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon or some other site.

“It is my view that the parties involved all want to see that happen in Moscow, and we are not about to pull back an agreement that we made with respect to the venue,” he said.

In Washington, Bush said that Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who met with Baker this week in Moscow, reiterated that “they wanted” to host those talks.

It was not clear who the president meant by “they,” but the Russian republic moved this week to assume the Soviet Union’s foreign policy commitments.

In trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bush restated the U.S. desire to serve as an “honest broker” and a “catalyst” for peace, and “not attempt to dictate solutions.”

“I think the parties see us in that role,” the president said.

Asked repeatedly about his view of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Bush reiterated his administration’s position that they are an “obstacle to peace.”

He added that “some in Israel happen to agree with us on this, as a matter of fact,” apparently referring to recent polls in Israel.

But the solution to the settlements problem will have to be resolved by the parties, the president said.

‘NO DECISION’ ON LOAN GUARANTEES

Bush also said he has “problems with some of the Arab positions,” specifically the participation of Arab countries in the economic boycott against Israel.

Asked if he was linking a cessation of Israeli settlement-building to the granting of U.S. loan guarantees to Israel, Bush replied that “no decision has been taken — no final decision at all,” he stressed.

In Amman, meanwhile, Jordan’s King Hussein accused Israeli hard-liners Thursday of trying to sabotage the peace talks.

He told the graduating class of an officers training school that the “the hurdles placed by some Israeli hard-liners on the path of peace” exposed their rejection of “all principles of international legitimacy.”

The Jordanian and Syrian press criticized the United States for passively standing by while the talks reached a dead end.

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

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