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Fourth Round of Arab-israeli Talks Ends with No Signs of Real Progress

As the fourth round of Arab-Israeli peace talks came to an end here this week, there were no concrete signs of real progress.

But the very fact that Israel and its Arab neighbors were still engaged in direct negotiations is a “welcome change” from the confrontational past, said Yosef Ben-Aharon, head of the Israeli negotiating delegation.

“We didn’t have any high expectations” from the beginning, Ben-Aharon said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

He explained that unlike Israel’s previous negotiations with Egypt in the late 1970s, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians came to the negotiating table only because “they were pressed” by the Bush administration.

“We are dealing with four Arab parties, which raises the problem of pan-Arabism” and leads to a tendency by them to press the “lowest common denominator,” he said.

Ben-Aharon, who heads the Israeli negotiations with the Syrians, blames them for this approach. The Syrians are trying to assume leadership of the Arab world and are pressing the other three parties to “adopt a very hard line,” he said.

Lebanon is directly under the orders of Syria, and Jordan is deterred by Damascus from making any real progress. The Palestinians are also under pressure from the Syrians, but they are less monolithic and have different views, Ben-Aharon explained.

Ben-Aharon still believes that the best chance for progress is with the Palestinians, which was the thinking when the direct talks began in Madrid at the beginning of November.

‘TALKING PAST EACH OTHER’

As for the atmosphere in the Washington talks, Ben-Aharon said it has been hostile, “especially on the part of the Syrians.” There is also no socializing or exchange of pleasantries with the Syrians, he said.

The Palestinians create an air of hostility by the language they use both inside and outside the negotiations, Ben-Aharon said.

As for the negotiations themselves, “we are talking past each other rather than to each other,” he said. “But there is also a direct exchange here and there.”

The Palestinians are still hoping that the United States will press Israel to accept their positions, he said.

“We need persistence, patience and more patience” until the Arabs realize that they and Israel can find “salvation only in each other’s arms,” Ben-Aharon said at a briefing for reporters Tuesday.

He said that in the talks Tuesday, “Syria chose to define for us what is Judaism,” calling it “exclusivist and racist.”

The Syrians also rejected Israel’s request for secure and defined borders, saying that Israel will find security when it leaves the Golan Heights.

The Palestinians presented Israel with a 12-page proposal, which, Ben-Aharon called a model for a Palestinian state. The plan calls for elections in September, but Ben-Aharon said elections should be decided only after a framework for self-government is agreed upon.

For its part, Israel continued to present its proposals for handing over self-rule to the Palestinians. The Israelis on Tuesday discussed ideas relating to industry, commerce, health and energy.

Ben-Aharon said that in the talks with Lebanon, Israel discussed a possible peace treaty, while the Lebanese only wanted to speak about Israel’s withdrawal from the border security zone it controls in southern Lebanon.

Only with Jordan was there a “degree of progress,” as both sides exchanged proposals for a working agenda, he said.

Ben-Aharon expressed confidence that the bilateral talks would resume sometime in April. But it was still unclear where they would reconvene. The heads of the various delegations were meeting with Secretary of State James Baker on Wednesday to discuss this issue.

Israel has said this is the last round of talks it wants to hold in Washington. It has submitted to the United States a list of 10 possible sites for the negotiations.

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