JERUSALEM (Feb. 22)
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived here Monday evening amid expectations that his talks with Israeli officials would focus on the future of the Golan Heights, rather than the fate of the Palestinian deportees in Lebanon.
Israeli officials said they were encouraged by public remarks made by the Syrians after discussions with Christopher in Damascus, but were waiting to be briefed by Christopher directly.
Syrian President Hafez Assad reportedly told Christopher his country would not condition resumption of the peace talks on the return of the deported Palestinians to the administered territories.
At a news conference Sunday in Damascus, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa called the peace process “broader and more important” than the controversy over the deportees.
That appeared to be a different line than the one taken last week by Egyptian officials, who told Christopher that Israel would have to make further concessions on the issue if the stalled peace talks were to resume.
In the aftermath of those statements, Israeli officials had expected to come under at least indirect pressure from Christopher to speed up the return of the deportees.
But in the wake of the Syrian statement, the Palestinian deportees in Lebanon said Sunday that they would accept a compromise solution that would have them return to Israel in stages, and not all immediately, as originally demanded.
The report said they would accept that compromise only if Israel announced it would stop using deportation as a means of punishment.
The feeling in Jerusalem after hearing the statements from Damascus and Lebanon was that Christopher would focus on the Golan instead in his talks Tuesday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
U.S. TO PLAY MORE ACTIVE ROLE
Christopher was expected to press Rabin on how far Israel is willing to withdraw on the Golan.
Rabin’s position so far has been to agree in principle to at least some withdrawal from the Golan. But he has said he would discuss it only once the Syrians have declared their readiness to sign a full peace treaty with Israel.
Christopher is now expected to try to accelerate the negotiating process by hearing Israel’s bottom line on the Golan.
In recent days, the secretary of state has also indicated that the United States will take a more active role in the peace process than did the Bush administration. In Damascus, he indicated the United States might present its own proposals to bridge gaps between Israeli and Arab positions.
This was something of a change of tone from a statement last week, in which Christopher said he was going to the Middle East merely to listen to the various parties. Some interpreted the remark to mean that Washington would take a relatively passive role in the talks, allowing the respective parties to work their problems out among themselves.
This in the past has been Israel’s preference. The Palestinians, on the other hand, would like Washington to play a more active role that would include pressuring Israel to make concessions.
Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, said the Americans would only become “active partners” in the peace process if they feel there is a good chance for success.
Rabinovich has been heading the Israeli team negotiating with Syria.
GOLAN SETTLERS PLAN PROTEST
Christopher landed in Tel Aviv on Monday night, after making a previously unannounced visit to Beirut, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in nearly a decade.
In anticipation of his arrival, Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met Sunday and Monday to consult and coordinate with each other on the pending talks.
Rabin also spoke with Christopher by telephone Sunday during the U.S. secretary’s visit to Jordan.
Christopher was expected to begin his Israel working tour Tuesday morning in a meeting with Peres, to be followed by a meeting with Rabin.
Christopher was then scheduled to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum, and meet later in the day with a Palestinian delegation.
Palestinians were hoping that, in a break from the past, the meeting would be held in Orient House, the headquarters of the Palestinian delegation in eastern Jerusalem. Past meetings between U.S. secretaries of state and Palestinians have been held at the American Consulate in western Jerusalem.
Christopher was expected to begin his second day here Wednesday with a helicopter tour of the north, to be followed by a meeting with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, head of the opposition Likud.
Israelis fearful of concessions on the Golan Heights have prepared an unusual protest to coincide with Christopher’s visit.
Settlers from a moshav in the Golan are trucking tons of snow from the Golan mountains to Jerusalem, where they plan to build an igloo in front of the Prime Minister’s office.
The intended message is that Rabin should freeze any discussions with Syria regarding Israeli concessions or withdrawal from the strategic plateau.