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Israeli-palestinian Talks Begin, but Topic of Discussion in Dispute

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While Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian negotiators have finally moved out of the State Department corridors, they are still divided about what they should be talking about in the negotiating room.

The Israelis insist that negotiations with the Palestinians should focus on ways of establishing self-rule for the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While agreeing that autonomy is the purpose of the talks, the Palestinians first want to discuss Jewish settlements in the territories and what they call human rights violations by the Israelis.

In addition, the Palestinians and Jordanians seem to be focusing on trying to prevent the Bush administration from approving guarantees for $10 billion in loans sought by Israel over the next five years for immigrant absorption.

The administration and Israel are now discussing the loan guarantees, which are expected to be acted upon by Congress early this year.

If the United States does provide the guarantees, it would be a “direct affront to the integrity of the peace conference,” Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi charged Monday.

Ashrawi’s remarks were called “chutzpah,” by Zalman Shoval, Israel’s ambassador to Washington and a member of the Israeli team negotiating with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Shoval maintained the loan guarantees have nothing to do with the peace process, since Israel has promised that none of the money would be used in the territories.

Despite this disagreement, both Shoval and Ashrawi appeared pleased, at separate briefings Monday, that Israel and the Palestinians had finally ironed out their procedural dispute.

SYRIAN TALKS FRUSTRATING

Last month, the bilateral talks never progressed beyond a couch in a State Department corridor as the heads of the Israeli, Jordanian and the Palestinian delegations argued over the Palestinian demand that its delegation negotiate separately with Israel rather than together with Jordan, as Israel insisted.

Under the agreement, as outlined by Israeli chief delegate Elyakim Rubinstein, Israel will first meet with the joint delegation and then the Palestinians and Jordanians will split up for separate talks with Israel.

Each negotiating team will have 11 members, with the Palestinian delegation including two Jordanians and the Jordanian group having two Palestinians. Rubinstein said the joint delegation would reconvene as needed.

The agreement was reached by Rubinstein and the two Arab chairmen Monday morning. Afterward, they summoned their full delegations, which then continued to discuss procedural matters for six hours.

Ashrawi revealed that since the talks broke up last month, all sides have been exchanging ideas by fax.

Rubinstein said the three chairmen sat on the couch once more Monday for a picture.

“We have finally and hopefully left the corridor of the State Department and entered the corridor of diplomacy,” Shoval said.

While the talks with the Palestinians and Jordan have begun, the negotiations with Syria, which got under way in December, appear to have bogged down.

“It is beginning to be an exercise in frustration,” Yosef Ben-Aharon, head of the Israeli delegation to the Syrian talks, said after several hours of negotiations Monday.

“Syria continues to resist any kind of acknowledgement of Israel as a legitimate entity in the Middle East alongside the other Arab states,” Ben-Aharon said.

He said that when the Israelis showed the Syrians a map used in their schools that does not show Israel, the Syrians replied that Israel was interfering in domestic issues.

The Syrians maintained that the only issue is Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Ben-Aharon said.

Talks with Lebanon were postponed Monday because of the illness of the Lebanese chairman. At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler denied that this was a case of “diplomatic illness,” to protest an Israeli raid against Lebanon last Friday.

How much could be accomplished this week remained unclear, as the Israelis planned to leave Wednesday night. But they left open the possibility that they would stay longer.

Shoval explained that the Israeli delegates had been here since Jan. 6 waiting for the Arabs, who did not appear at the negotiations until Monday, in protest over Israel’s plan to deport 12 Palestinians from the administered territories.

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