A New Tone Pervades First Day of Latest Round of Peace Talks

Negotiators at the sixth round of the Middle East peace talks gave high marks to the first session Monday, citing a new tone on all sides that reflects a real commitment to the process.

The Israeli delegation met with the Syrians for more than three hours, presenting them with a detailed proposal to resolve the dispute over the Golan Heights, but neither party would disclose what it entailed.

The Syrians said it was a serious plan and that they would prepare a response. They praised the Israelis for accepting the relevance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to withdraw from occupied land in return for peace.

The previous government had argued the resolution did not necessarily apply to the Golan Heights, West Bank or Gaza Strip, maintaining that Israel had fulfilled its obligation under the resolution by returning the Sinai to Egypt.

The harmony at the peace talks was marred slightly by the late arrival of the Palestinian team, which had left the region late in protest over Israeli rules governing travel permits.

But the atmosphere was buoyed by fresh hopes that Israel’s new, more flexible government would spur the breakthroughs needed to resolve the region’s intractable conflicts.

NO ‘PRECONDITIONS, DELAYS OR EVASIONS’

In sharp contrast to the tough, intransigent talk from the previous rounds of negotiations, the rhetoric Monday was full of openness, optimism and cordial expressions of good will.

The Israelis “enter this round with an open mind, new ideas and a renewed sense of devotion to our goals” without “preconditions, delays or evasions,” Yossi Gal, spokesman for the Israeli delegation, said at an afternoon news briefing.

Gal said the new government had reordered its national priorities, taken steps to accelerate the peace negotiations and “set as its prime goal the promotion of peace in the Middle East,” leading to the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He called on his Arab partners to adopt a similar stance.

Bushra Kanafani, spokeswoman for the Syrian delegation, said she came away from the morning session with a distinct impression of change.

“Our delegation heard today a different tone from the Israeli delegation, a different approach and style,” she reported. She called the atmosphere surrounding the talks “reasonable and constructive.”

The progress in the talks with Syria can be attributed in part to the new head of the Israeli negotiating team, Itamar Rabinovich, a renowned Middle East scholar whose appointment sent a message to Syrians that Israel was serious about doing business. Kanafani said the Israeli delegation affirmed its commitment to U.N. Resolution 242, calling it an “opening point.”

Before we used to struggle and fight,” she said. “Now the road is paved for the discussions.” While acknowledging there are different interpretations of 242, she said they would be discussed.

She said it was premature to address the substance of the proposal on the Golan Heights, but acknowledged it “remains the core of the problem between us and Israel.”

“The Golan is occupied Syrian territory,” she said. “We want all the Golan, and we want peace and security. (But you) can’t talk about it when you leave part of your territory under occupation.”

SYRIANS EXPRESS ‘PROFOUND SERIOUSNESS’

Real peace, she said, “means in our minds that we’ll regain our rights in our lands.”

Nevertheless, she said the Syrian delegation assured the Israelis of “our genuine and profound seriousness in the peace process.”

Marwan Moasher, information officer for the Jordanian Embassy, said after the morning session with Israel that there had been “positive developments in spirit and theme.”

He said that while differences remain “in principle,” the tone of the talks is different.

The Israelis will meet for the first time Tuesday with the full Palestinian delegation. Gal said they would offer their plan for election in the territories of an administrative council that would serve as an interim means of Palestinian self-government.

Gal reiterated Israel’s opposition to the Palestinians’ proposal for a legislative body, calling it an “organ of statehood,” to which Israel has not agreed.

And he called on the Palestinians to be open and flexible. They “have nothing to lose. They have everything to gain,” he said. “They are not risking anything by engaging in serious dialogue with us. We are the ones on the giving side.”

“We hope the upcoming five weeks will constitute five firm and giant steps in the monumental search for peace,” said Gal. He said he would request that news briefings be kept to a minimum to discourage rhetoric and advance the substantive agenda of the talks, which will recess just before Rosh Hashanah.

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