Problems Dog Palestinian Talks, but Syria Sends Hopeful Signals

Problems that have cropped up this week in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have dashed hopes of a quick breakthrough in this ninth round of Middle East peace talks.

At the same time, however, the Israelis are encouraged by new signs of flexibility from Syrian President Hafez Assad.

In an interview published Tuesday on the op-ed page of The New York Times, Assad said he could accept the idea of the four sets of negotiations proceeding at different paces and possibly reaching agreements with Israel at different times.

That was seen as a departure from Assad’s earlier stance that an Israeli agreement with any one party was unacceptable until a “comprehensive settlement” had been reached with all four: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, who heads his country’s negotiations with Syria, welcomed some of Assad’s comments in the interview, a longer version of which was published last weekend in the London-based Arabic-language paper al-Wasat.

“While not everything in the interview is precisely to our liking, there are some very positive elements in that interview,” Rabinovich told reporters before his Tuesday morning negotiating session with the Syrian delegation.

“We welcome this use of public diplomacy in the effort to negotiate peace between Israel and Syria,” the ambassador said.

The two sides discussed the Times piece in their session Tuesday, Rabinovich said after the meeting.

But one observer of the peace process cautioned that Assad’s comments were not that different from his previous remarks.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Council of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, pointed out that Assad had said earlier that he would resume the peace talks with Israel last month whether or not the Palestinian delegation attended.

Assad’s comments represent “another incremental step forward,” Pipes said. “Overall, it looks positive. But it’s not commensurate with what the Israelis have done. The Israelis have made a great number of concessions in the past few months.”

NO ‘GREAT LEAP FORWARD’

Another expert, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the full interview had both positive and negative aspects.

He said the Syrian leader’s comments about agreements standing on their own was useful, but added that it was “disconcerting” that Assad referred to Lebanon only in the context of how much it benefits Syria.

Overall, Satloff said, “the fact that one is discussing whether or not this is a great leap forward means that it isn’t.”

Meanwhile, in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the forward momentum of the previous week was slowed, but not entirely halted, when Palestinian leaders decided to cut their negotiating team from 14 to three members for this week’s talks.

Faisal Husseini, the overall delegation leader, and Haidar Abdel-Shafi, chief of the Palestinian negotiating team, were among those absent from Monday’s session.

The Palestinians, in a statement Monday, said they were protesting what they called “Israel’s failure to carry out commitments it had made earlier to the Palestinian side and to the U.S. administration.”

One major concern for the Palestinians is the fate of some 400 Palestinians deported by the Israelis last December. The Palestinians feel the deportees are not being returned quickly enough.

The Israelis agreed Monday to let another 25 of the deportees return, but the Palestinians said they were not satisfied by this gesture.

But Middle East experts said this week that they did not feel the deportation issue needed to be completely resolved for progress to be made in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Despite the “public image of frostiness” between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, “there’s also give and take” on substantive issues, said Satloff of the Washington Institute.

“They’re negotiating,” he said. “The presence of the deportees in South Lebanon” is not stopping them.

PARTIES DISCUSSING ‘CORE ISSUES’

In Tuesday’s negotiating session, the truncated Palestinian delegation and the Israeli delegation discussed draft statements of principles put forth by both sides.

The Palestinians said their negotiators were not satisfied with the Israeli draft, which was presented late last week. They cited areas of “territorial jurisdiction, powers and responsibilities, and legislation” as particular concerns.

After Monday afternoon’s session, the Palestinians presented the Israelis with an informal draft of their own statement of principles, and the two sides met in what Israeli officials called an “ad hoc working group” Tuesday afternoon to discuss the two drafts.

The Israelis say that their draft statement of principles could serve as a “framework document” for further negotiations on Palestinian autonomy.

The document could define “the outer limits of what we negotiate here,” said Israeli spokesman Yossi Gal. He added that once the parties agreed on the general issues, they could then start negotiating on the specifics.

Palestinian elections was one of the topics discussed in the draft statement, Gal said. The two sides would have to work out a formula as to how the concept of elections would be represented in the document, and then in the next stage, they would discuss such details as who would be eligible to vote and what type of elections would be held.

Gal said that the Israelis hoped to finish this round of talks with something concrete for the Palestinian negotiators to take home to their constituency. “It is high time the Israelis and Palestinians show that they can reach agreement” on something, he said.

But such agreement could take a while, one expert cautioned.

Richard Haass, a top Middle East adviser in the Bush administration, who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said negotiators are often afraid that “what they agree to now” in a statement of principles “will come back to haunt them.”

The “good news,” though, Haass said, is that the two sides are “beginning to talk about real things” and “core issues.”

NEXT STORY