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Israel Walks out of Refugee Talks to Protest Palestinian Delegate

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Israel has walked out of the multilateral peace talks on Middle East refugees here because of its objections to the affiliations of the head of the Palestinian delegation.

“We are very sorry that conditions were not created for Israel’s participation,” said Israeli delegation head Shlomo Ben-Ami on Wednesday.

He said Israel came to the multilateral talks on the basis of an understanding, reached through Egyptian mediation last month, that the talks would exclude members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s so-called parliament in exile, the Palestine National Council.

But the Palestinians came to Ottawa with a member of the Palestine National Council, Mohammad Hallaj, at their head.

“We are very, very sorry to discover that the Palestinian delegation did not abide by this understanding,” said Ben-Ami. “However, I should say that Israel continues to be committed to the importance of the multilateral track in the overall framework of the peace process,” he added.

The collapse of the talks was another setback to the Middle East peace process. Bilateral talks in Washington have been slowed by increased violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border and by the transition to a new U.S. administration.

The previous round of refugee talks held here last May was boycotted by Israel because then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir objected to the participation of Palestinians from outside the administered territories. Hallaj, who heads a research institute on Palestinian affairs in Washington, attended the May talks.

But Israel’s new government, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said it was willing to talk with diaspora Palestinians as long as they were not members of the PLO or bodies associated with it, such as the PNC.

Canadian government spokesman Rodney Moore said “Israel has decided not to attend and we understand the factors underlying that decision.”

After last-minute diplomatic efforts by Canada, the United States and Egypt failed, the conference opened after a delay of more than three hours without Israeli participation. Thirty-eight nations are in attendance.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that the Israeli delegation was preparing to leave Ottawa. A spokesman said the Israelis were unlikely to change their position. The Israeli withdrawal was in contrast to the settlement of a similar crisis at last month’s opening in Paris of the multilateral talks on Middle East economic development. At that time, the head of the Palestinian delegation, also a member of the Palestine National Council, developed a case of diplomatic flu, enabling the talks to go ahead with Israeli participation.

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