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Palestinians Send out Mixed Signals on Whether They Will Return to Talks

Palestinian participation in next week’s round of Middle East peace talks remains in doubt, as American officials continue consultations at the State Department with Israeli and Arab representatives.

U.S. officials are publicly optimistic about a Palestinian return to the talks, but Palestinian representatives in the administered territories and elsewhere have been sending mixed signals.

While the consultations at the State Department were originally designed as “pre-peace-talk” discussions of substantive proposals the parties would offer once the talks resumed, the consultations ended up also focusing on what might bring the Palestinians back to the table, sources said.

A group of Palestinians, including the head of their negotiating delegation, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, met Wednesday with State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, and some of the Palestinians met again Thursday with American officials.

One Arab American leader commented Thursday that the meetings between the Americans and the Palestinians were hampered by a “discrepancy in terms of the expectations of the different parties.”

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans, said that while the Americans wanted to discuss the substantive issues that would be under consideration once the peace talks resumed, the Palestinians were “not at that stage,” and wanted to talk about what they would need to assure their return to the table.

The Palestinians, Jahshan said, were not satisfied with “conditional” proposals premised on a stated Palestinian agreement to return to the talks. Instead, he said, they “would like tangible announcements.”

U.S. OFFICIAL SEES AMBASSADOR

Djerejian and his advisers also met this week with delegations from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The assistant secretary met Thursday with Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich. According to Ruth Yaron, the spokeswoman at the Israeli Embassy here, the talks focused on gestures Israel could make to advance the peace process once the negotiations had actually started.

Yaron said the discussion focused on “thoughts about gestures or topics that could be raised in the negotiations that might be helpful to advancing the peace process.”

The Palestinians have refused to return to the talks until some issues, including the return of the 415 Palestinians deported by Israel in December, are resolved to their satisfaction.

But Yaron said the discussions between Djerejian and Rabinovich did not deal with the deportations or other such issues. She said it was “pretty clear” and acceptable to the Americans that there would not be any discussion of such matters before the talks began.

Israeli officials have previously praised the Clinton administration for not backing away from a compromise the United States and Israel reached in February on the deportation issue.

Yaron said that the sense was that the Palestinians would return to the talks.

While the State Department would not comment specifically about what was discussed at the meetings, spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Thursday that the United States does expect all the parties to show up next Tuesday So far, only the Israelis have accepted the invitation.

The Arab parties were expected to announce their position after a summit meeting in Damascus this weekend.

PLO REJECTS ADVISER’S STATEMENT

The uncertain mood both in Washington and in Israel about Palestinian participation was in sharp contrast to the optimism emanating from the summit meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held Wednesday in Ismailia, Egypt.

From the remarks the two leaders made at a joint news conference Wednesday, it appeared an agreement had already been reached about Palestinian participation, and that it would be formally announced at the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Damascus.

But in Tunis, the Palestine Liberation Organization distanced itself from a statement made by one of Yasir Arafat’s advisers, Bassam Abu-Sharif, that the Palestinian delegation would indeed show up for the talks in Washington next Tuesday.

The PLO issued a statement Thursday saying Abu-Sharif’s announcement “did not reflect the view of the Palestinian leadership.” Moreover, the statement said measures will be taken against Abu-Sharif “in due course.”

And in the territories, a member of the advisory board to the Palestinian delegation, Ziad Abu-Ziad, came up with a new precondition Thursday for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table that Israel should allow residents of the territories, which have been sealed off from Israel proper indefinitely, to enter Jerusalem.

The ban on Palestinian entry into Jerusalem has created hardships for the population, because the largely Arab eastern part of the city houses many Palestinian institutions, including the Mokassed Hospital on the Mount of Olives.

Abu-Ziad’s demand was supported Thursday by Knesset members Naomi Chazan and Dedi Zucker of the left-wing Meretz bloc.

In Washington, Jahshan of the National Association of Arab Americans, who had previously been optimistic that the problems preventing a Palestinian return could be resolved, said he was getting “a bit nervous” at this point, though he still thought it was possible the Palestinians would come back to the talks.

Gail Pressberg, president of Americans for Peace Now, said Thursday that she thought the Palestinians would return, but that the situation was “pretty dicey.”

“It’s what I’ve been saying for months,” she said. “You won’t know” about Palestinian participation “until the night before.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem.)

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