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Sparks Fly Between U.S. and Israel over Middle East Regional Talks

The talks on Middle East regional issues, which opened here and in Brussels on Monday and in Ottawa on Wednesday, generated more fireworks than all five rounds of bilateral peace talks since October, though they covered supposedly less sensitive ground.

The talks sparked another abrasive quarrel between the Bush administration and Israel and seemed to accomplish little of substance.

Israelis were apoplectic over U.S. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler’s seemingly off-hand assertion Tuesday that since its adoption in 1948, the United States has supported U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return or compensation for Arabs who fled Israel.

While reiterating this position Wednesday, Tutwiler stressed that the United States also believes that the issue should be resolved only through the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

She said that was why the United States opposed the Palestinian effort to raise the issue at the Ottawa session on refugees Wednesday.

But the Israelis would not be mollified. They boycotted the Ottawa talks on refugees and stayed away from the Brussels sessions precisely because their attendance by non-indigenous Palestinians was viewed as a symbolic affirmation of the right of return.

U.S. STATEMENT SEEN AS VINDICATION OF SHAMIR

Likud officials said Tutwiler’s statement was vindication of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s decision to boycott the Ottawa and Brussels talks.

Shamir refused to be swayed by a letter over the weekend from Secretary of State James Baker saying that the United States did not view the presence of diaspora Palestinians at the peace talks as recognition of the right of return.

In Ottawa on Wednesday, Palestinian spokesman Muhammed Hellaj said Israel’s boycott of the refugee meeting “reflects the lack of seriousness on the part of Israel in confronting the core of the Palestinian problem — the issue of refugees and their right of return to their homeland.”

With Israel absent from the Ottawa talks, the Palestinians were free to assert what they view as their inherent, natural right to return to their homes in Israel.

Tutwiler said Wednesday she could understand the Israeli outrage because of what she called “wild and amazing” stories by Israeli reporters who she said misinterpreted her remarks.

She said she was accused of announcing the U.S. position on the U.N. resolutions, when all she did was respond to a question.

Tutwiler apparently was referring to an exchange she had with an Arab reporter who asked whether the Palestinians’ right to return “to Jaffa” was “an interpretation of the relevant U.N. resolutions.”

But Israeli officials saw her remarks as a “punishment” for Israel’s boycott of the Ottawa talks. They persisted in focusing their concern on the very fact that the State Department, on the eve of the refugee talks that Israel was boycotting, chose to voice its endorsement of the basic right to return.

Israel was “shocked” by Tutwiler’s statement, said Ehud Goll, the prime minister’s spokesman.

There were outcries also on the left. Labor said it had always opposed the Palestinian claim to a right of return as a threat to Israel’s existence.

Meretz, the new peace bloc, called the right of return “inconceivable” and urged demonstrating to the Americans “the gravity of their mistake.”

LITTLE PROGRESS BEING MADE

Meanwhile, the regional talks on arms control continued in Washington on Wednesday with Israel and 19 other countries listening to U.S. and Russian experts expound on how the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted arms talks during the Cold War.

An agenda for the next session is expected to be set before the talks end Thursday.

The Brussels talks on economic development adjourned disconsolately Wednesday after admitting that no progress will be made without advances in the bilateral Israeli-Arab negotiations.

Syria and Lebanon are boycotting all of the multilateral meetings ostensibly because of lack of progress in the bilateral phase.

“We hope that (Syria, Lebanon and Israel) will be present at our next meeting, which will take place in October in Paris,” said Leonardo Mathias, the ambassador of Portugal, the country that currently chairs the European Community Council of Ministers. The E.C. is hosting the talks in Brussels.

At another meeting in Brussels, unrelated to the multilateral talks, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy defended his country’s decision to boycott them.

LEVY MEETS WITH E.C. MINISTERS

Levy attended Israel’s annual meeting with the 12 E.C. foreign ministers on trade and mutual cooperation.

He said the presence at the multilateral session of Palestinians from outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed that the principles agreed to by all parties before the peace conference opened in Madrid on Oct. 30 “have not been respected” by one of the parties.

Israel agreed to sit down only with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Levy, meanwhile, said he had “excellent” discussions with the E.C. ministers.

But apparently they achieved little to advance Israel’s desire to improve its economic position in Europe.

“The qualitative enhancing of our relations with Israel will only take place when there is real progress in the peace process,” Joao de Deus Pinheiro, foreign minister of Portugal, told reporters at a news conference with Levy.

(JTA correspondents David Landau in Jerusalem and Yossi Lempkowicz in Brussels contributed to this report.)

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