The United States and Russia have formally invited Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese negotiators to return to Washington on April 20 for a ninth round of bilateral peace talks.
But the Palestinians say they will not show up unless the fate of some 400 Palestinians deported by Israel last December is resolved to their satisfaction.
U.S. officials are hoping nonetheless that the Palestinians will agree to join the talks.
An invitation asking the Israelis to attend the bilateral talks was handed to Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin on Wednesday by the U.S. ambassador, William Harrop, and his Russian counterpart, Alexander Bovin.
A similar invitation to the Palestinians was presented at the delegation’s headquarters in eastern Jerusalem by Molly Williamson, the U.S. consul general here.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said the delegation “refused to receive the invitation,” while Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the delegation’s chairman, said he and his colleagues would carefully study the invitation.
The invitation was, in fact, later returned by messenger to the American Consulate.
Political observers said the Americans decided to extend the invitations before the Palestinians had made up their mind about attending the talks in order to prod them to do so. They felt the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Tunis, which guides the Palestinian negotiators, was leaning toward resuming the talks with Israel.
‘NOT HEARD THE LAST WORD’
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said: “I strongly feel we have not heard the last word from the Palestinians.”
“My strong conviction continues to be that the Palestinians will want to return to the negotiations because they see” an opportunity to “make real progress,” he added.
Christopher announced he was inviting members of the negotiating teams to come to Washington in late March or early April to hold “substantial discussions” with American officials before the ninth round begins.
He also said the five multilateral working groups on regional issues ranging from economic development to arms control would reconvene at various times and locations this spring.
The first of the new round of multilateral sessions will be the group on water resources, which will convene April 27 in Geneva.
Christopher said his “encouraging” discussion with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus last month was one of the “principal elements” forming his decision to go ahead with issuing invitations for the peace talks.
He also reiterated an American pledge to be an “active party” in the peace talks.
Here in Jerusalem, Israeli officials were hoping that the invitations would strike the deportation issue off the agenda of next Monday’s meeting at the White House between President Clinton and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, allowing the two leaders to focus their talks on the peace process.
Rabin was scheduled to leave Thursday night for a 10-day visit to the United States, which will also include meetings with Defense Secretary Les Aspin and various members of Congress.
Rabin is said to be seeking maximum cooperation with the president over U.S. involvement in the peace process. He reportedly wants to reach a basic understanding with the United States regarding the “red lines,” or final negotiating positions, in the talks.
EVE TO EVE ON FUNDAMENTALISM?
The prime minister is also expected to discuss with Clinton the growing menace of Iran and Moslem fundamentalism. The World Trade Center explosion is believed here to have created a better atmosphere for a U.S.-Israeli under-standing on ways to cope with Moslem fundamentalist dangers.
Other topics on the agenda include: preserving Israel’s security advantage; updating the agreement for strategic cooperation, including the discussions about using Haifa as a base for the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet; the continued development of the Arrow anti-missile missile; preserving the scope of American military and civilian aid to Israel; and fighting the Arab League economic boycott against Israel.
Israel is also concerned that the United States will eventually renew a direct dialogue with the PLO, following the trend in Europe to upgrade the level of contacts with the PLO.
Just this week, Britain’s Foreign Office minister, Douglas Hogg, met with PLO officials in the highest-level such meeting since the Persian Gulf War. Israel protested, but officials here believe Britain would not have held the talks without a green light from Washington.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Deborah Kalb of States News Service in Washington.)