News Analysis: Little Headway Made in Peace Talks, but Their Continuation is Progress

After two rounds of Middle East peace talks in Washington, some commentators are expressing gloom that no solid agreements have been reached.

But this overlooks the real accomplishment so far: that the talks have taken place at all and are expected to continue in February.

Few would have believed a year ago, or even six months ago, that Israeli negotiators would be sitting across the table from Syrians, or even Palestinians, though Israelis have negotiated before with Lebanese and Jordanian officials.

As Yosef Ben-Aharon, head of the overall Israeli delegation, put it this week, after talks with the Syrians, “The very fact that we are talking with them” is “in itself an accomplishment.”

This is apparently also how the State Department sees it. Richard Boucher, the department’s deputy spokesman, said the United States has always believed that the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East “is for the parties to engage in direct discussions of their differences.

“That is what they are now doing, and we think that is a significant achievement.”

The latest round of bilateral talks ended Thursday after the Israelis met with the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and then with just the Jordanian delegation before returning home.

FOCUS ON LOCATION OF NEXT ROUND

The discussion apparently centered on the time and venue of the next round of negotiations. Both sides agreed that the talks would continue in February, although Jordan said it would be in Washington, while the Israelis continue to insist that the talks be held in the Middle East.

One of the reasons Israel wants the talks out of Washington is that more could be accomplished without the media spotlight that the American capital guarantees, Zalman Shoval, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, explained Wednesday.

The level of vilification, especially between Israel and the Palestinians, increased this week as both sides sought to show that they were continuing to talk despite outrages at home from the other side.

Israel’s stated reason for wanting the talks to be held in the Middle East is that the members of its delegation all have government jobs that they must attend to and that the nearer they get to an agreement, the more direct consultations they must have with Jerusalem.

The Israelis also would like to see the meetings held in the countries involved because that would imply Arab recognition of Israel’s legitimacy.

But the Israelis said this week that if the Arabs cannot bring themselves to come to Israel, then they could chose from a list of 10 other possible sites in the region. The Arabs said they wanted to continue meeting in Washington.

Israel also does not like Washington as a site, because they feel it encourages the Arab tendency to ask the United States to settle any deadlocks by pressing Israel. The Palestinians, in particular, continually call for U.S. intervention.

But when the Israelis met Wednesday with Secretary of State James Baker, he assured them the United States would not interfere. The State Department has been telling all parties that the only way to reach an agreement is through bilateral negotiations.

SYRIAN TALKS STILL DEADLOCKED

Boucher expressed U.S. satisfaction Thursday that Israel and the Palestinians had settled their procedural differences. Last month, the Palestinians demanded that their delegation be split from the Jordanians for talks with Israel.

The dispute was finally settled when talks resumed Monday with a meeting between Israel and the joint delegation, followed by Israeli meetings with separate Palestinian and Jordanian delegations.

The talks with Jordan went well, as have talks with Lebanon. Most observers believe those two countries are eager to have a peace treaty with Israel and would do so once agreements are reached with Syria and the Palestinians.

The Jordanians could never come to an agreement unless the Palestinian issue were settled, since the majority of its population is made up of Palestinians. Lebanon is under Syrian military control.

The Syrians, meanwhile, have refused to negotiate anything but Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The Israelis have tried to raise such issues as Syrian support for terrorism and the plight of Syrian Jews, which the Syrians regard as an internal matter.

The Israelis also have expressed frustration that the Syrians refuse to give any signs that they accept Israel’s legitimacy.

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