Israel Caught off Guard by New Schedule for Peace Talks

A proposal to resume the Middle East peace talks in Washington next month has caught Israel off guard.

While Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has stressed his desire to speed up the pace of negotiations, government sources said he would much prefer to stick to the schedule worked out before the talks adjourned in late spring. This called for the talks to resume in September in Rome.

Rabin was quoted as saying at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that Washington was “too far” and August “too near.”

The change in venue from Rome to Washington was reportedly due to Italy’s inability to guarantee necessary security arrangements in August, when half the city’s policemen apparently take vacation.

But Israeli observers feel the proposed transfer back to Washington may be linked to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s desire to continue overseeing the process even after he takes up his expected new role as manager of President Bush’s re-election campaign.

There is also a belief that the Bush administration wants to advance the talks in order to produce a major foreign policy success prior to the November elections.

After returning from a six-day tour of the Middle East, Baker said Saturday that the United States would like to see the talks resume August 10 in Washington.

MINISTERS SOMEWHAT EMBARRASSED

That date is reportedly not to the liking of Rabin, who is scheduled to visit with Bush in Maine that week and would like an interval between that visit and the resumption of the peace talks.

Ministers were somewhat embarrassed Sunday by the turn of events. After all, the new Rabin government has laid heavy emphasis on its desire both to intensify and to speed up the peace process.

Minister of Agriculture Ya’acov Tsur and Minister of Health Haim Ramon both told reporters that Israel wanted to comply with U.S. proposals for an early resumption of talks. Nevertheless, officials later made it clear that this desire to cooperate did not extend to moving the talks back to Washington.

The previous Israeli government put a premium on moving the talks close to the Middle East, for both symbolic and logistic reasons. The new government basically subscribes to the same reasoning. In fact, the logistical considerations take on even more urgency under the Rabin plan for the talks, given that the new prime minister wants the negotiating rounds to continue for several weeks on end.

Previously, each round lasted at most ten days — a schedule seen as a manifestation of the Likud government’s desire to drag out the talks indefinitely. Long sessions in Rome, with periodic breaks for consultations at home, was seen by the new government as an efficient and convenient way to advance the talks.

On Sunday night amid the confusion, it seemed that if Baker insists on Washington as the venue and August as the time, Israel will probably not want to make an issue of it.

Also on Sunday, Syria announced it would attend the next round in Washington, putting further pressure on Israel to comply with the American plan.

“Clarifications are proceeding,” a government source told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Nothing is finalized, despite American statements.”

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