Christopher Calls Talks ‘top Priority’ As Palestinians Signal They May Return

Prospects for a Palestinian return to the Middle East peace talks brightened this week with the news that a Palestinian delegation would be arriving here for a meeting Friday with Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

A State Department spokesperson said that while there was an “open agenda” for the meeting, it would include the “next steps” for a possible Palestinian return to the table.

Earlier this month, the United States had invited Israel and the Arab parties to send representatives to Washington for discussions with American officials prior to the resumption of the talks April 20.

Separately, in an appearance before the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Christopher stressed the importance of the peace talks to the Clinton administration.

He called the pursuit of peace in the Middle East a “top priority” for American officials.

He noted that every Arab leader he met with on his trip last month to the Middle East “made it very clear that they are serious about pursuing peace.”

He did not specifically mention the upcoming Palestinian visit.

Christopher and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said that they are prepared to play the role of a “full partner” in the talks if the parties are willing to engage in serious negotiating this time around.

In his first major policy address as secretary, at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, Christopher reiterated that theme and said it was “imperative that all sides act to seize this opportunity and return to the negotiating tables in Washington on April 20.”

At AIPAC on Tuesday, Christopher added: “President Clinton and I are not interested in negotiations that are simply a ritual without a purpose.

“Enough time and effort has gone into the modalities of the peace process. Now it is time to turn to serious negotiations and to agreements leading up to real peace.”

INTERRUPTS MEETINGS WITH RUSSIAN

Christopher interrupted meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, whose country is in the midst of a grave political crisis, to address the 2,000 participants at the AIPAC conference.

This was the secretary’s first appearance in the United States before such a large Jewish gathering.

The secretary, who visited Israel last month, called his tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem “one of the most moving experiences I have ever had,” and said press reports of his emerging from the memorial “choked up and solemn” were accurate.

He also said his trip to Israel made him more aware of the country’s security problems.

“No one who has ever visited Israel can fail to appreciate how much the need for security shapes Israel’s view of the world,” he said.

“Since independence,” he added, “the state of Israel has been confronted with terrorism, with Scud missiles, with war, and now with the even deadlier threat of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction.

“No one in the area should have to live this way in the future.”

Christopher was received warmly by the crowd, who stood up, cheered and waved American flags when he appeared on the podium.

In his remarks, Christopher stressed the “shared values” between the United States and Israel, including democracy and pluralism.

“These shared values have provided an absolutely essential solid sustenance for the relationship between the United States and Israel,” he said.

KIND WORDS FOR AIPAC

Christopher had kind words for AIPAC, saying, “I value this organization.

“You and other leaders will have access to me as much as I can possibly give through my tenure as secretary of state,” he said.

The U.S. commitment to the peace process, voiced by President Clinton as well as Christopher, has been welcomed by the Israelis, who have already accepted the invitation to return to the talks April 20.

But the Palestinians have said they will not come back to the talks until all the Palestinians deported by Israel in December are returned.

The United States and Israel worked out a compromise solution, which was accepted by the U.N. Security Council, under which 101 of the 415 men would be returned at once and the rest by the end of the year.

One Arab American leader said Tuesday that “things were on the verge of being resolved” in some areas of concern “hindering the resumption” of the peace talks.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, said it was not a question of “all or nothing” — i.e., the return of all the Palestinians before the April 20 resumption of talks.

Rather, the point, he said, was to ensure that there were “steps” being taken “to show the problems are being resolved consistent with” the U.N. resolution calling for the return of the Palestinians.

Jahshan said the Palestinian group arriving in Washington on Friday, headed by Faisal Husseini and reportedly including Hanan Ashrawi, would have “a loaded agenda” in their talks with State Department officials.

Topics for discussion include the peace process, U.S. relations with the Palestinians and Israeli relations with the Palestinians.

The Arab parties to the peace talks are scheduled to meet Sunday in Damascus to discuss whether to accept the invitations to the talks next month.

AIPAC estimated that 45 U.S. senators and 85 representatives attended their banquet Monday night. The speakers were Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

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