WASHINGTON (Sep. 24)
The sixth round of Middle East peace talks concluded Thursday with no breakthroughs but with a firm commitment by all the delegations to persevere because the stakes are so high.
All parties agreed that the more serious engagement between the Israeli and the Arab delegations over the last five weeks marked an improvement over previous negotiating rounds.
“Because of the nature and history of the conflict,” said Israeli delegation spokesman Yossi Gal, “no one should expect dramatic breakthroughs. Yet every day brings us closer to our common goal of bringing peace to the region.”
At the same time, the Arabs said the high expectations triggered by the election of a new Labor government in Israel had not been met and that the Israelis had recycled the same, old proposals of the former right-wing Likud government.
Still, the Arabs have accepted the Israeli proposal to return to Washington on Oct. 21, after the Jewish holidays have ended. They said they hoped Israel would use the period to draft newer and more creative responses to their papers.
Expectations had been high that Israel and Syria would issue a joint statement of principles at the end of the current round to help guide future talks aimed at achieving a peace agreement.
Those talks were bolstered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s declaration a few weeks ago that Israel was willing to apply U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for the exchange of land for peace, to the Golan Heights. That marked a sharp departure from the policy of the previous Israeli government.
But the talks got bogged down over Israel’s refusal to meet Syria’s demand that it declare its willingness to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights. Israel has refused to address the question of withdrawal directly until Syria spells out its terms for a peace agreement. And Syria has balked at delineating how it sees normalized relations with Israel.
Syria’s chief negotiator, Ambassador Mouwaffak Allaf, said Thursday it seemed the Israeli delegation was not authorized or ready to deal seriously with crucial elements of the talks, which he called “regrettable.” He said the “ball is in Israel’s court” now.
Allaf said a statement made in New York on Wednesday by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa that offered “total peace” for “total withdrawal” from the Golan should eliminate any doubts about Syria’s positive intentions.
He also discounted recent Israeli statements that the talks should be “upgraded” to a summit level, saying it is substance and not procedure that is at issue.
Some observers believe that the parties backtracked under pressure. They say Syria was urged not to strike a separate deal with Israel while the other negotiating tracks were stalled, while Rabin came under fire in Israel from the right wing and other opponents of territorial concessions on the Golan.
The Israelis are expected to come back Oct. 21 with a response to Syria’s proposed joint statement of principles.
Progress has perhaps been most painstaking in the Israeli-Palestinian track, aimed at negotiating an interim self-governing authority for the Palestinians in the territories. There has been a serious exchange of papers and responses.
The Israelis have proposed general elections for a 15-member administrative council with broad jurisdiction over the affairs of daily life in the territories.
The Palestinians want a bigger body with legislative authority. Last week they also suddenly introduced a new demand: that Israel declare that Resolution 242, or withdrawal from land, applies to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Israelis refused. They said that the letter of invitation to the peace talks, the only binding document of the negotiations, states that 242 applies only to the negotiation of the final status of the territories.
But the Israelis specifically stated their acceptance of 242′s application to that phase of the talks, which is scheduled to begin after the third year of Palestinian autonomy.
The Palestinians ultimately retreated. Instead, they said they want assurances that whatever is done in the current phase of talks will be informed by that ultimate commitment to 242 and that nothing will be done to undermine that commitment.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks began making progress late last week after the parties established a pattern of breaking into small groups to discuss some of the issues informally.
“We are inching along in this marathon,” said Israeli spokesman Gal. “We have done a lot in order to understand each other better.”
But Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi had a somewhat different perspective.
“We still feel the Israelis are negotiating from inherited positions and (in) the framework of Likud proposals,” she said. “At the same time, I don’t think this is a closed door or a dead end.”
The current round has been “very useful as an exploratory period in which each side carefully studied each other’s proposals and positions” and had “extensive communication to try to delineate areas of difficulty and agreement,” she said.
Ashrawi said she hoped the Israelis would come back next month with “a new mind-set.” She said she expected them to return with a response to the Palestinians’ proposed agenda, which would serve as an organizing principle for the talks.
Ashrawi stressed that time is of the essence. She said that the level of skepticism among Palestinians is increasing, and the sooner the delegation had progress to show for its efforts, the better.
While Gal reported progress in the Jordanian and the Lebanese tracks, the Jordanian spokesman, Marwan Mouasher, said the Jordanians were still stuck in their efforts to establish a common agenda with the Israelis.
Talks with Lebanon, meanwhile, reportedly improved greatly in atmosphere. The most notable development probably was the news that surfaced that missing Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad may be alive. The Lebanese delegation offered the information in response to requests from the Israelis.
States News Service