Crisis Averted at Economic Talks over Representation of Palestinians

A case of diplomatic flu on the part of a Palestinian delegate averted a crisis here Thursday at the opening of multilateral talks on Middle East economic development.

The potential for a crisis emerged after Israel objected that the head of the Palestinian portion of the joint negotiating team with Jordan was a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s so- called parliament in exile.

Israel threatened to boycott the talks if Yusuf Sayagh participated.

The problem was resolved when Sayagh conveniently fell sick, enabling a Palestinian more acceptable to the Israelis, Zeyn Mayasi, to head the delegation.

As part of the deal, Israel for the first time apparently agreed to allow the participation of two Palestinians living outside the administered territories: Mayasi, who was born in Haifa and lives in London, and Beshara Khader, a Palestinian professor of economics who lives in Belgium.

Asked to explain the Palestinians’ decision not to press for Sayagh’s inclusion, Mayasi said, “When you are weak, you just cannot say no.”

And Khader pointed out that the inclusion of Palestinians outside the administered territories was a victory, considering that they were excluded from the conference in Madrid a year ago that opened the current peace process.

“Half of the Palestinian people lives outside Palestine,” he pointed out.

Despite the deal on Palestinian representation, Syria and Lebanon boycotted the talks here, as they have for all five sets of multilateral talks on various Middle East regional issues.

Israel’s presence in the territories and its recent incursions into Lebanon were cited by representatives of the two countries as their reason for not showing up to the talks here.

As for the talks themselves, the Palestinian delegates said they were particularly interested in a proposal floated by the United States to train the Palestinians to run their own affairs during the transition to autonomy in the territories.

There were offers from other countries as well: Japan, one of the co-sponsors of the talks, volunteered to look into the development of regional tourism. France is ready to help with communications in all fields. The European Community suggested creating a network between Palestinian and European universities. And Egypt spoke of creating a bank for regional development.

All this, said Uri Savir, deputy director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, shows that a new concept for the Middle East has been born in Paris – that of regional interest.

“Till now, we had nationalisms opposing one another. For the first time, we are foreseeing a common future,” said Savir, who was formerly consul general of Israel in New York.

Savir sees a linkage between the bilateral talks being held in Washington and the multilateral talks being held in various cities around the world.

“But I mean to say that this works both ways,” he said. “There can be no progress in the bilaterals without progress in the multi-laterals.”

But that theory was not shared by the Palestinian delegates, who said in a statement, “Israel insists that economic steps should be taken right away and that peace will be the last stage. We think otherwise.

“Peace is the prerequisite to any improvement in the situation prevailing in the Middle East,” the Palestinians said.

Savir described what had been discussed as “confidence-building measures.”

“All this will take a lot of time,” he said. “Between the minimum of what can be expected out of this current session and the maximum, the gap is very narrow. I think the minimum has been achieved by the very fact that this round of negotiations is taking place. We are discussing our common future. This is a breakthrough,” he said.

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