Next Round of Multilateral Talks Unlikely to Be Held Before Autumn

Another round of multilateral talks on Middle East regional issues will convene in several venues around the world, but not until this fall.

The location of the meetings, but not the final dates, were decided Wednesday, when the steering group guiding the multilateral phase of the Middle East peace talks met in Lisbon.

The steering group, which consists of senior officials from more than a dozen countries in and outside the region, reviewed what was accomplished in the first series of five multilateral conferences held earlier this month.

According to Leonardo Mathias, a Portuguese diplomat who chaired the one-day session, all five achieved “small steps in the right direction.”

He described the talks so far as “confidence-building” measures aimed at getting the Middle East antagonists to cooperate in solving regional problems that affect them all.

A senior official of the European Community observed, however, that “the central key of this process remains the bilateral Arab-Israeli talks” that got under way in Madrid last fall and met four times subsequently in Washington.

The bilateral talks, which have brought Israelis face to face with a Palestinian delegation, are scheduled to resume in Rome, possibly in July.

The entire process was established under the joint auspices of the United States and Russia. The multilateral phase was launched in Moscow in January. Five working groups held widely separated two-day sessions in various capitals between May 10 and 20.

Washington hosted disarmament and security talks. Refugee issues were discussed in Ottawa, with Canada playing host. The E.C. chaired talks in Brussels on economic development. The regional water problem was discussed in Vienna, and talks on environmental issues were held in Tokyo.

But Israel stayed away from the Ottawa and Brussels sessions because non-indigenous Palestinians were allowed to attend. Syria and Lebanon boycotted all five meetings to protest lack of progress in the bilateral phase.

MORE WORKING GROUPS PROPOSED

Reports from Lisbon said the Palestinians are pressing for the creation of two more multilateral working groups — on human rights and the status of Jerusalem.

Israel has long been proposing a group on health problems.

The Lisbon meeting apparently decided where the next series of multilateral talks will be held but did not make it public. No final date was set, but Israeli participants said it would be “in the early fall.”

July was ruled out because Israel, which holds parliamentary elections June 23, may not have a new government in place by then. August is vacation month in Europe, when virtually everything shuts down.

According to reports from Lisbon, the Egyptian delegate raised the question of the current fighting between Israeli and Shi’ite guerrilla forces in southern Lebanon.

The head of the Israeli delegation, Yossi Hadass, replied that to be objective, the Egyptian should have mentioned the wave of fatal stabbings of Israelis by Arabs in Israel.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, co-chairman of the steering group, said both those issues were outside the scope of the multilateral talks.

Lisbon was the site of the meeting because Portugal currently chairs the E.C. Council of Ministers.

(JTA correspondent Yossi Lempkowicz in Brussels contributed to this report.)

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