JERUSALEM (Oct. 8)
In a policy shift, Israel has agreed to join multilateral peace talks on refugee affairs and regional economic development, which it previously boycotted.
The announcement was made Thursday evening after Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa made a lightning visit to Jerusalem.
Sources here credited Moussa with persuading Israel to join the two multilateral working groups, which it had until now boycotted because of participation by delegates linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel’s agreement to participate in the talks was announced at the end of a meeting that Moussa held with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres before flying back to Cairo.
He had reportedly handed Rabin “practical” proposals from President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to advance negotiations with the Palestinians, who had recently complained that their talks with Israel were lagging behind those with Syria.
Israel had boycotted both working groups in the past because the Palestinians insisted on including representatives from outside the administered territories in those talks. This had been viewed here as an attempt to include the PLO in the talks.
Israel has now agreed to negotiate with representatives of the so-called Palestinian exile on three conditions: that they are not members of the Palestine National Council, that they are not residents of Jerusalem, and that they do not raise as an issue the right of Palestinian refugees to return to parts of Israel they fled after Israeli independence.
It was not clear whether Israel’s consent to join the two working groups involved any Palestinian concessions.
It was also not clear whether Israel’s action would prompt Syria or Lebanon to join the multilateral talks. They have boycotted not only the talks on refugees and economic development, but also the other three working groups: on disarmament, the environment and water resources.
Moussa’s previously unannounced visit came as the country commemorated the fallen of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel beat back surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria after sustaining heavy losses.
The symbolism of the visit by the Egyptian minister was underlined by Rabin.
In an address at a memorial ceremony at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, the prime minister took note of the fact that he was about to meet with his Egyptian guest. He said a lesson of the Yom Kippur War was the need to avoid a repetition of the mistakes that had led to the hostilities.
Moussa divided his tight schedule between Rabin and Peres, whom he met separately twice each before the three-way meeting later in the day.
Peres welcomed the surprise visit of the Egyptian guest. “There were times when a visit by Egypt’s foreign minister to Israel was a sensation and an event. Today it is part of ongoing working relations,” he said.
Moussa began his long day with a half-hour meeting with Peres, before moving on to discussions with Rabin, to whom he handed the special message from Mubarak.
Rabin did not give Moussa an immediate reply to Mubarak’s message nor to Egyptian suggestions on the Palestinian issue.
Coming out of the meeting with Rabin, Moussa said he was optimistic about negotiations with the Palestinians. Referring to a term used by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he said, “Sometimes constructive ambiguity is important.” He did not elaborate.
He said Egypt expected more flexibility from Israel. “We want to launch a new Middle East, based on the common understanding that land for peace is the basis for this process,” he said.
“The Palestinians have rights to be met, and all the countries in the region – - Israel included, of course — have the right for a secure present and future.”
Moussa and Peres differed on the linkage between the multilateral talks and the bilateral negotiations that have been taking place in Washington. Peres suggested one track should not impede the progress of the other.
His Egyptian counterpart argued that the two are linked.