Israel Confirms Earlier Reports, Will Boycott Some Regional Talks

Israel will not attend two of the five sets of multilateral talks on Middle East regional issues next week because diaspora Palestinians will be participating, an Israeli Embassy official said.

The talks Israel will boycott are the May 11-13 economic development talks in Brussels, to be held under the chairmanship of the European Community, and the refugee talks in Ottawa on May 13-15.

“If Palestinians from outside the territories participate in deviation from (an earlier) formula, then Israel won’t participate,” the Israeli official said.

As of Wednesday, “It seems we won’t be participating,” the official said, adding that a formal response would be sent within a few days to the co-sponsors, the United States and Russia, and the host countries, Belgium and Canada.

The United States and Russia announced in January that they would support a non-indigenous Palestinian presence in the two working groups that Israel now intends to boycott.

The Israeli embassy official here said that the Israeli ambassadors to Canada and Belgium are “not going to be attending those talks in any form.”

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that he would not comment on the issue until there is a formal Israeli response.

Secretary of State James Baker, in a meeting Monday with the American Jewish Congress, played down a possible Israeli boycott, one of the Jewish leaders present said. He said Baker spoke of how some of the other Middle East parties “have not gone to other meetings.”

Baker also told the AJCongress that the United States won’t try to force Israel to talk to Palestinians it finds unacceptable.

In January, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian delegation boycotted the Moscow session, hosted by Russia, that launched the multilateral issues talks. Russia refused to seat an expanded Palestinian delegation such as the one Israel is objecting to now.

Syria apparently will be staying away from the five multilateral sessions on grounds that the five rounds of bilateral talks with Israel since last October lacked substantive progress.

A pro-Israel lobbyist minimized the multilateral talks as “seminars” in which the Mideast parties “won’t be negotiating with each other.” The lobbyist noted that the agenda for the Washington-based arms control talks May 11-13 includes speeches by officials from non-Middle East countries.

DIASPORA PALESTINIANS NOT INVITED TO SOME TALKS

Diaspora Palestinians have not been invited to the arms control talks, nor to the talks in Vienna on water resources May 12-14 or the environmental talks the week of May 18 in Tokyo.

“It is fair to say that all of the multilaterals are going to get off to a rather slow start by design, whether the Israelis are there or not,” the lobbyist added.

But Hassan Abdel Rahman, director of the Arab League’s Washington-based Palestine Affairs Center, who will be in Ottawa for the refugee conference, said, “I believe that progress is going to be made because there will be a discussion of one of the most important components of the Palestinian issues, namely Palestinian refugees.”

Israel is opposed to the participation of diaspora Palestinians because it might convey symbolic acknowledgment of a Palestinian right of return to the territory that is now Israel.

In defending their position, Israelis argue that the multilateral talks should reflect the ground rules for the bilateral talks, which do not allow diaspora Palestinian participation.

Israel was reported to have proposed a compromise that would allow diaspora Palestinians to be included among the delegations of the Arab countries where they legally reside, for example Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

But the Arabs objected and Israeli officials in Jerusalem vehemently denied last week that they had offered any such proposal.

The refugee negotiations may be the most emotional of all the talks. Abdel Rahman said the six-member Palestinian delegation in Ottawa will include three diaspora Palestinians: Mohammed Hallha, director of the Washington-based Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine; Elias Sanbar, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris; and Eli Zureick, a professor at Queens College in Kingston, Ontario.

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