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Israel Ready to Continue Talks in Washington in Late August

After an initial reluctance, Israel appears ready to accept the resumption of the Middle East peace talks in Washington toward the end of August.

The final details will likely be announced during Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to the United States in the second week of August, according to highly placed sources in Jerusalem.

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said last week he would like to see the talks resume in Washington on Aug. 10, but the Israelis did not want the negotiations to coincide with Rabin’s first meeting with President Bush since taking office.

Jerusalem sources confirmed that Rome, which had previously been agreed upon as the venue for the talks, was now unlikely to serve that role, at least for the present round.

Reasons cited for the change of location include Italy’s inability to handle the logistics and security arrangements for the talks, which are to take place sooner and continue longer than originally proposed.

It has also been suggested that Baker may want the talks in the U.S. capital so he can monitor them if, as expected, he soon takes charge of the Bush re-election campaign.

The Israelis, who had long favored a venue close to the Middle East for symbolic and practical reasons, are now seeing Washington in a more favorable light, as well.

ARAFAT COULD ENSCONSE HIMSELF IN ROME

In Rome, the sources pointed out, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat might ensconce himself at the embassy the PLO maintains there, which would inevitably embarrass the Israeli side. In Washington, on the other hand, this would not happen, since Arafat would presumably be refused a visa by the Americans.

Israel says that after a further round in Washington, which could last up to three weeks, the talks should then shift close to the region. That would allow virtually constant negotiation sessions, interspersed by brief visits home to consult with policy-makers.

But government officials may no longer be satisfied with Rome. They may hold out for Cairo — a new option recently offered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — in the anticipation that Arafat would be discouraged from appearing there.

On the more substantive question of Palestinian representation at the talks, cabinet sources disclosed Monday that the prime minister had told Baker that he, like his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, would cleave closely to the “Madrid Formula.”

That means he will not agree to the participation of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, including Faisal Husseini.

The Israelis have insisted that East Jerusalemites be ruled out since they view Jerusalem as an integral part of Israel and thus not part of any autonomy plan.

The new Labor government has, however, indicated flexibility on the question of participation of “diaspora” Palestinians in the multilateral negotiations, which take place in five separate working groups.

Under the Likud government, Israel boycotted two of the groups, those on economics and on refugees, when the co-sponsors, America and Russia, invited diaspora Palestinians to take part.

The cabinet sources said Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had stressed last week, in their talks with Baker, that they will insist that the autonomy talks focus on a “self-governing authority,” as prescribed in Camp David accords. They indicated they would reject the idea of a “legislative assembly,” as demanded by the Palestinians.

The sources said Baker had “a harsh conversation” with Husseini and the Palestinian leadership on this point.

Israel sees such an assembly as part of a state-in-the-making, and is determined not to allow autonomy to lead inexorably to Palestinian statehood.

The Israeli sources said there could be no agreement to hold elections in the territories unless and until this key issue had been agreed upon. Thus far, they indicated, there was no such agreement, though they seemed gratified that the American position appeared to back Israel.

The sources made it clear that the question of American loan guarantees for Israel had not been resolved, despite the warming atmosphere between Washington and Jerusalem.

The sources indicated the United States is not yet satisfied with the extent of the Israeli building freeze in the administered territories. Rabin had sought to explain to Baker that the new government was limited by law as to what it could legitimately freeze.

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