WASHINGTON (Apr. 8)
President Clinton’s meeting here this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak demonstrated that intricate diplomacy is essential to overcome the obstacles to resuming the Middle East peace talks.
The Clinton administration is trying to accomplish several things at once in the Middle East, a perpetual trouble spot that has tripped up many past administrations.
As newcomers, Clinton and his foreign policy team are working to gain the trust of both the Israelis and the Arabs. But at the same time, the administration has made a resumption of the peace talks a high priority, and that has required some diplomatic prodding.
So far, the Israelis are the only Middle East party to accept the joint U.S.-Russian invitation to return for a new round of talks here April 20.
While Syria and Jordan appear ready to resume negotiations, the Palestinians, still embarrassed by Israel’s expulsion in December of 415 Moslem fundamentalists from the administered territories, do not want to return to the talks without exacting some concessions from Israel.
Under a compromise worked out in January between Israel and the United States, Israel agreed to return 100 of the deportees immediately and the rest by the end of the year. But that was not acceptable to the Palestinians, who demanded that all be returned immediately.
Prior to his meeting with Clinton on Tuesday, Mubarak had said he would ask the president to press Israel to make further concessions on the deportee issue that could persuade the Palestinians to return to the talks.
But Clinton announced following the meeting that the Israelis had done enough and that he would not pressure them further.
At a joint news conference following his meeting with Mubarak, Clinton said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had “taken a very forthright and open stand in trying to reach out to the Palestinians and to the other parties, and I believe that it’s enough to get people back to the table.”
PROPOSAL ON FAISAL HUSSEINI
This comment was consistent with previous administration statements refraining from pressuring Israel, an attitude that has pleased Jewish groups.
But, while not leaning on Israel, the administration has continued to negotiate with all the parties.
Washington reportedly has offered the Palestinians a package of concessions, conditioned on a Palestinian agreement to return to the talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian told Arab journalists in Cairo via satellite Thursday that “a very significant package of statements, gestures and actions has been elaborated which could and will come into play as soon as the Palestinians make a positive decision to come to the round on April 20.”
State Department officials would not comment on the specifics of the offer. But the United States reportedly has asked Israel to consider allowing Jerusalem resident Faisal Husseini to serve as the head of the Palestinian negotiating delegation.
Under the original agreement before the peace talks began in Madrid in October 1991, the Israelis refused to accept Jerusalem residents as official members of the Palestinian delegation, fearing such an arrangement would be interpreted as an indirect Israeli recognition of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem.
Husseini, considered by many to be the senior Palestinian leader inside Israel and the territories, has been serving as an unofficial adviser to the delegation. And Secretary of State Warren Christopher has met with him in both Jerusalem and Washington.
Israeli officials have refused to comment publicly on whether they would agree to Husseini’s inclusion.
But in New York, Henry Siegman, executive vice president of the American Jewish Congress, said Husseini would bring more credibility to the Palestinian delegation.
He observed that it would be in Israel’s interest to have “as credible a Palestinian delegation as possible,” adding that it is “not in their interest to have a weak Palestinian delegation.”
MUBARAK-RABIN SUMMIT NEXT WEEK
Sources here say there are indications that Israel and the United States reached a prior agreement on the issue of Husseini’s formal participation and that under certain circumstances, Israel would not oppose the move.
Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, told reporters Thursday that “the Israeli government has indicated to us its readiness to be responsive in important ways to Palestinians’ concerns if the Palestinians make the decision to return to the negotiating table.”
As Robert Satloff, acting director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out, however, any new concessions agreed to by Israel before a Palestinian agreement to return to the talks would be “viewed as payments to get them back to the talks.”
Meanwhile, Mubarak plans to hold a summit meeting with Rabin in Sinai next week, in an effort to find a formula to enable the Palestinians to return to the talks.
Israeli policy-makers expected Mubarak not to demand further Israeli concessions on the deportation issue, particularly after Clinton’s remarks at the news conference Tuesday.
Egypt, the only Arab country at peace with Israel, has played an important diplomatic role in recent weeks.
Like Rabin, who visited Washington last month, Mubarak was given a high-profile welcome at the White House, including a joint news conference with Clinton in the East Room.
“It was very important that Mubarak be seen as the principal American Arab ally,” Satloff said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said his group had been told by administration officials that the discussions with Mubarak were “very constructive” regarding the peace process.
Following a conference call among member agencies, Conference of Presidents Chairman Lester Pollack said in a statement Thursday that the umbrella organization was “waiting to hear the Palestinians announce that they are coming back to the table. The rest,” he added, “is for the parties to negotiate.”