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Regional Talks Open in Washington Amid Discord and Low Expectations

Talks on Middle East regional issues opened here and in Brussels on Monday amid greater discord and lower expectations than attended the five rounds of bilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks held to date.

Israel is boycotting the Brussels talks on economic development because diaspora Palestinians are present. It will be absent from the refugee talks in Ottawa on Wednesday for the same reason.

Israel is attending the arms control talks here and is expected to attend the talks on water resources in Vienna on Wednesday and the environmental issues discussions opening in Tokyo on May 18.

But Syria and Lebanon are boycotting all five regional talks on the grounds that they are pointless as long as no serious progress is made in the bilateral phase.

Israel, in addition, is quarreling with the European Community over its role in the arms control talks, preferring to reduce the E.C.’s participation or eliminate it altogether.

But even the U.S. State Department is calling the talks here involving Israel and 21 other countries a “seminar” on Middle East arms control.

The United States, in fact, is stressing the “educational” aspect of the regional talks to distinguish them from the supposedly substantive peace negotiations going on between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and three of its Arab neighbors.

ISRAEL CALLS TALKS A ‘LEARNING EXPERIENCE’

The seminar aspect was also accentuated when the Israeli delegation arrived at the State Department on Monday to open the arms talks.

This will be a “learning experience,” said David Ivri, secretary-general of the Israel Defense Ministry.

He said Israel hoped the lessons of arms control in other areas would serve as a confidence-building measure for the Middle East even though Syria and Lebanon are absent.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir repeated Monday that Israel will never agree to participate in negotiations with Palestinians who are not residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

To do so would imply recognition of the Palestinians’ right to return to territory now part of Israel, “as is clear to everyone,” Shamir told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Yitzhak Rabin, leader of the opposition Labor Party, has not taken a clear position on the issue. But he was sharply critical of the peace talks to date on both bilateral and multilateral levels. They seem to be heading nowhere and in fact have regressed, Rabin told the Knesset committee.

Shamir confirmed that he had a rare telephone conversation with President Bush the day before the multilaterals opened in Washington. He did not indicate whether the issue of diaspora Palestinians came up.

The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the multilateral phase, agreed to admit non-indigenous Palestinians to the talks on refugees and economic development, but they are excluded from the rest.

Bush has said the United States would not force Israel to negotiate with any parties it found objectionable.

The multilateral talks are “designed to complement and act as a catalyst to progress in the bilateral negotiations,” said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.

She said the arms talks would cover “methods and concepts of arms control; the evolution of the confidence and security-building process; the history of the U.S.-Soviet hotline agreement; and the incidents-at-sea and dangerous-military-activities agreements.”

ISRAEL AT LOGGERHEADS WITH EUROPEANS

The United States and Russia are the chairs for the arms control talks. The other host countries will chair the talks in their capitals; in Brussels, the talks are being chaired by the E.C., which is headquartered there.

Israel finds itself at loggerheads with the E.C. over the Washington talks, arguing that the European group should not be attending on an equal basis with the co-hosts.

It wants substantive discussions to include only the Middle East parties and the co-sponsors without European or other participation.

But the 12 E.C. states say they are seriously concerned over stability in the region, and arms control is a major issue to them because some member states have been major arms exporters to the Middle East.

Israel seems to fear most that the Europeans will raise the issue of Israel’s reputed nuclear weapons arsenal.

The E.C. demonstrated its pique over the Israeli position, and apparent U.S. acquiescence in it, by deliberately sending a junior-level delegation to the Washington opening.

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy was in Brussels on Monday for his annual meeting with his 12 E.C. counterparts devoted to Israel’s relationship with the European economic entity. The meeting has no connection with the multilateral talks in Brussels.

ISRAEL MAY BE HOLDING OUT FOR A DEAL

Some Israeli commentators have suggested that the Jerusalem government is in fact holding out for a deal with Europe.

If the Europeans make good on their trade promises, Jerusalem would agree to their full-scale participation in the arms control talks, the commentators said.

In addition to Israel, 12 other Middle East and Arab countries are participating in the arms control talks.

They are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Also participating are: Canada, China, the European Community, India, Japan, Turkey and Ukraine.

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

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