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Lebanon Violence and U.S. Transition Complicate Resumption of Peace Talks

Continuing violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border marred the resumption Monday of the seventh round of Middle East peace talks.

At the same time, President-elect Bill Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a telephone call Monday that he hoped there would be no “slowdown” in the talks during the transition between U.S. administrations. He also pledged to work closely with Rabin to achieve peace in the region.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, pledged to the Israelis its full cooperation with Clinton’s transition team to ensure the talks would continue without interruption.

This week’s first negotiating session between the Israelis and the Lebanese was cut short after the chairman of the Israeli team delivered a blunt statement, intended to register what he called “our very, very serious view of what is happening” on the border and to warn it would not be tolerated.

“If there is no security on our side of the border, life will become intolerable on your side of the border as well,” said Uri Lubrani, recounting to reporters what he told the Lebanese team. “The latest attack will not pass unnoticed.”

Lubrani’s comments followed attacks by Katyusha rockets from Lebanon into Israeli towns and villages in the northern Galilee region.

The Lebanese claimed the firings were the response to an Israeli air raid over the weekend in the Bekaa Valley, in which four Lebanese lives were lost.

The Israelis also protested the violence with the Syrians, according to Israeli spokesman Yossi Gal. The Syrians control the areas in Lebanon that are strongholds of Hezbollah, the guerrillas waging the attacks.

But Gal made it clear that the Israeli government views the latest violence as a continuing effort by extremists to derail the peace process and that Israel would not yield to their tactics.

“Our policy is clear,” said Gal. “We will pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism and pursue terrorism as if there is no peace process.”

The talks with the Lebanese were scheduled to resume Tuesday and were expected to continue to focus on terrorism, violence and security. These talks are intended to establish a mechanism with which to address mutual security concerns along the border.

The current round of hostilities follows an outbreak of terrorist attacks in the territories and fierce fighting in southern Lebanon two weeks ago, before the talks recessed for the U.S. elections.

Despite the violence, however, the round of talks produced a breakthrough prior to the recess that was being built upon this week. The Israelis and the Jordanians agreed on an agenda that was seen to open the way for real progress.

Gal reported the parties were “on the verge” of finalizing an agreement that will determine the structure of the talks, the principles that govern them and the issues to be negotiated, including borders, water, security, refugees and the essence of future relations between the two countries.

The agreement’s central feature is the declaration that the objective of the talks is a comprehensive peace agreement. The Israelis hope the agreement with Jordan will serve as a model for the bilateral talks with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

The Israelis and the Syrians, meanwhile, continued to focus on an effort to reach a similar agreement on a joint declaration of principles to help guide their talks.

But the talks remained stalled over Israel’s refusal to spell out the territorial concessions it is willing to make on the Golan Heights until Syria spells out the “exact nature and content of the peace” it envisions with Israel in return for those concessions.

Syria “cannot expect us to commit to a price unless we’re allowed to examine the merchandise,” said Gal.

More progress has been made recently in the talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in their effort to reach agreement on a Palestinian interim self- governing authority in the territories.

Prior to the recess, negotiators broke up into small working groups to discuss the nature and scope of such an authority, while the Israelis agreed to review a 12-point proposal to protect Palestinian human rights.

There is some question whether real progress on this track or in any of the other negotiations can be made before the Clinton administration assumes power.

Clinton himself has issued blanket assurances that he is committed to the peace process. But the various parties are known to be eager for more confidence- building signals from Clinton’s transition team before they move into the substantive phase of talks, where difficult risk-taking will be required.

Gal acknowledged, though, that it is too early to expect specific signals from the Clinton transition team.

The Bush administration has met with the delegations and assured them it will continue to be engaged in the peace process until the reins of government are officially handed over to Clinton and his team.

Ruth Yaron, spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy, said the Israeli government is confident that both the outgoing and incoming administrations would assign a “high priority” to the process and cooperate enough to “continue their momentum.”

She made the comment following a meeting last Thursday between Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval and Dennis Ross, White House Chief of Staff James Baker’s top policy aide. Ross maintains responsibility for the peace talks from the White House.

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