Palestinians Reject Offer on Talks, but Americans Have Not Yet Given Up

Palestinian negotiators reportedly have rejected a package of U.S. proposals aimed at convincing them to return to the peace table.

But the United States still appears to be optimistic that all of the Arab parties, including the Palestinians, will show up here April 20, when the ninth round of bilateral talks with Israel is scheduled to begin.

So far, the Israelis are the only party to have accepted a joint U.S.-Russian invitation to resume the bilateral talks, which have been stalled since Israel deported 415 Palestinians to Lebanon in December.

In an effort to persuade the Palestinians to rejoin the talks, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his aides met here Friday with Palestinian leaders Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.

Christopher reportedly offered them a set of concessions, including a speedier return of the deportees, a commitment from Israel not to deport Palestinians in the future and an easing of various restrictions on Palestinians in the territories.

But the offer was contingent on the Palestinians agreeing to return to the talks.

Ashrawi appeared to reject the U.S. offer Monday. Speaking in Amman, Jordan, the Palestinian spokeswoman said, “Human rights and other issues are basic rights; they are not issues for blackmail, negotiations or pressure.”

“We feel that in order to remove obstacles” to peace, she said, “there has to be a commitment followed by concrete steps.”

The State Department had no immediate reaction to her remarks.

Representatives of the four Arab parties to the peace talks — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians — convened in the Syrian capital of Damascus this past weekend and agreed to postpone a decision about whether to return to the negotiations with Israel on April 20.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa told reporters Sunday that no decision would be made until after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets with President Clinton in Washington on April 6.

Mubarak met Sunday with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. The PLO plans meetings in Tunis in the next week to discuss whether to support a return to the peace talks.

EGYPTIAN ENVOY OPTIMISTIC

Despite the mixed signals from the Arab side, the United States is putting its best face on the issue.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher termed the meetings with the Palestinian delegation late last week “useful and productive.”

He said that the United States remained “encouraged that all the parties will decide to resume the talks.”

Maher El Sayed, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington, also expressed optimism about the future of the talks, saying Monday that the negotiating parties “are on the threshold of a new Camp David.”

Speaking at an American Jewish Committee luncheon forum, the ambassador said the U.S. talks with the Palestinians, which continued on Saturday, “have resulted in an optimistic view about the possibility” of negotiations resuming April 20.

Egypt, the only Arab country at peace with Israel, has played an important role in encouraging the parties to return to the talks.

But both El Sayed’s and Boucher’s comments were made before reports of Ashrawi’s rejection of the U.S. offer.

At his briefing Monday, Boucher did not offer many specifics about the discussions with the Palestinians last Friday and Saturday, in which Russian officials also took part. “I can’t address any points in detail,” he said.

Reporters at the briefing pressed him for information on what the United States may have said to “sweeten the pot” for the Palestinians.

Boucher said the deportation issue had been discussed and that a U.S.-Israeli agreement on the return of the deportees, hammered out in January, did not rule out further steps by Israel.

NO POLICY CHANGE ON JERUSALEM

But he did not specify what such steps would be and he repeated the U.S. position that the agreement is “consistent with the United Nations resolutions” calling for the return of the deportees.

Boucher was also asked whether the U.S. position on the status of Jerusalem had changed, because of reports that the Palestinians were pleased about something the United States had said on the subject.

The spokesman responded that the U.S. position on Jerusalem has not changed.

The United States has said in the past that Jerusalem should remain united, but that the city’s final status should be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.

The United States had invited all the parties to Washington for consultations prior to the resumption of the bilateral talks, and the meetings with the Palestinians fell into that category.

Those meetings lasted a total of more than four hours. They included two one-on-one sessions between Christopher and Husseini, lasting a total of 70 minutes.

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