Christopher Meets with Delegations As Ninth Round of Peace Talks Begins

The Middle East peace talks resumed here Tuesday amid heightened expectations and a realization that the peace process would involve a thicket of thorny issues that could prove difficult to resolve.

This ninth round of talks, which got under way Tuesday, is noteworthy both because it represents the Clinton administration’s debut as co-host, with the Russians, and because of the lengthy break since the parties met in December.

The new administration has made the peace process a high priority, as demonstrated Tuesday afternoon in an unprecedented, high-profile meeting that Secretary of State Warren Christopher held with the heads of the Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese delegations.

As the meeting began, Christopher praised all the parties for attending the talks.

“The parties’ decision to return to the negotiating table reflects their commitment to the peace process,” the secretary said. “And I’m grateful for the courage that it took these gentlemen to attend the meeting today,” he added.

Reporters present for the start of the meeting expressed disappointment that the delegation leaders would not shake hands for the cameras.

“We hope to crown this process with more than handshakes,” Mouwaffak al-Allaf, chief of the Syrian delegation, told reporters. “We came here in order to discuss peace and not to care only about formalities.”

There seemed to be a certain relief in the air that all the parties, were actually present in Washington. Until last week, the Palestinians had refused to return to the talks because of a variety of concerns, including the fate of some 400 Palestinians deported by Israel last December.

‘WILLING TO TEST EVERYTHING’

But at the same time, the long delay in resuming the talks has lent an urgency to the proceedings.

“This phase is a test case,” a “test for the whole peace process,” Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said as she emerged from the State Department after the Palestinians met with American diplomats Tuesday morning.

Ashrawi stressed a need for movement both on the substance of the negotiations themselves and on “conditions on the ground,” by which she meant such issues as human rights in the territories and the fate of the deportees.

“We are willing to test everything,” Ashrawi told reporters. “We have taken serious risks, and we are gambling” that they will succeed.

Prior to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, which did not get under way until late Tuesday afternoon, Israeli spokesman Yossi Gal told reporters that the Israelis were “willing to explore every course of action needed in order to move the negotiations with the Palestinians forward.”

Gal said the Israelis were prepared to offer new proposals to the Palestinians on such issues as land and water management.

Gal also said the Israelis welcome the participation in the talks of Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini, who had previously been excluded because he is a resident of eastern Jerusalem.

“We said yes to Faisal Husseini joining the talks,” Gal stressed. “We wish him success and welcome him to the talks.”

While the Palestinian track was certainly the high-profile issue of the day, the Israelis also met their counterparts from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan on Tuesday morning.

The Syrian track, which some see as having potential for quick momentum, seemed preoccupied with definitions of terms, as it was when the talks recessed in December.

The Israelis have spoken of withdrawing from the Golan Heights, but only if the Syrians offer a “full peace,” complete with exchanges of ambassadors and trade relations.

“There is no better formulation for peace than the term complete peace, full peace, for full withdrawal,” Syrian negotiator Allaf told reporters before beginning negotiations with his Israeli counterparts.

COMMITTED TO ‘FULL WITHDRAWAL’

Itamar Rabinovich, the Israeli ambassador to Washington who also serves as head of the negotiating team with the Syrians, told reporters after Tuesday’s session with Syria that “the Syrian delegation is now using rather frequently the term ‘full peace.’”

“Their policy means that we commit ourselves to full withdrawal,” Rabinovich continued.

But, he added, “there is a problem with this formulation” of full peace for full withdrawal, “in the sense that it is an asymmetrical formulation,” and the definition of “full peace has remained rather vague.”

The Jordanian track, which Israeli chief negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein said has been characterized as “a solid, quiet work in which progress has been made,” seemed to proceed accordingly Tuesday.

Jordanian negotiator Salam al-Majali told reporters after the meeting with the Israelis that the two sides had “almost finalized” their agenda in the eighth round last year.

But, he added, unless progress was also achieved in the other Israeli-Arab discussions, “I doubt we could go further now.”

Israeli spokesman Gal, on the other hand, said later Tuesday that “Israel does not condition progress in one set of talks with parallel progress in another. We hope that our Arab counterparts will do the same.”

Still, the Jordanian and Israeli negotiators, at least on superficial matters, seemed to agree, using almost identical words as they stepped out of the State Department into a bright sunny day.

“We are here with open heart and open mind,” Majali said. “Hopefully the good weather will have a good effect.”

Rubinstein also commented on the sunny weather and said his delegation came with “open hearts, with open minds.”

Israeli spokesman Gal told reporters that the Israeli-Jordanian session was “businesslike” and that it had been a “very good meeting.”

The meeting with the Lebanese team, he said, was “also positive.”

NEXT STORY