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Israelis and Palestinians Unhappy with American Role at Peace Talks

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As Israelis and Palestinians size up the results of the ninth round of Middle East peace talks, concluded last week in Washington, both sides say they are disappointed in the role the American administration played.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has urged Secretary of State Warren Christopher to come to the region himself, or send a high-level emissary, in order to make substantive progress before the talks are scheduled to resume June 7.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who left Israel early Sunday for visits to India and China, said he felt a breakthrough was needed “in the coming weeks” or else the window of opportunity, opened when the Middle East peace talks began in October 1991, could begin to close.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have accused the United States of colluding with the Israelis. They also have accused Israel of failing to live up to its promises of gestures and concessions.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Rabin pledged he would offer no further concessions unilaterally, but would insist on a Palestinian response being spelled out and clearly understood in advance.

After the Cabinet meeting, Health Minister Chaim Ramon said the Palestinians would be making a grave mistake if they failed to seize Israel’s proposals for autonomy in the territories.

He implored the Palestinians “not to push too much, not to miss again the golden opportunity to start to rule their own lives.”

The ninth round of talks wound up last Thursday with the two sides failing to agree on a joint declaration of principles, designed to express their common goals without papering over the still-vast areas of dispute.

Israeli officials said they do not know the real reason for Palestinian protests about the negotiations, but suggested it may have less to do with Israel than with differences between the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership in Tunis and the Palestinian leadership in the territories.

ARAFAT OPPOSED U.S. DRAFT

Nabil Shaath, an aide to Yasir Arafat, confirmed privately over the weekend that the PLO leader himself had instructed the delegation to reject a draft of the joint statement proposed by the Americans.

Shaath said the Palestinians were angry not to have seen the draft before May 12 and felt it had been drawn up in cooperation with the Israelis and then presented to them as a fait accompli.

Nevertheless, both Shaath and Palestinian sources in the administered territories said the paper could have been — and might still be — an acceptable basis for an agreed declaration of principles.

Most of the Palestinian negotiating team gathered in Tunis early this week for debriefing sessions with the PLO leadership.

The situation in Israel and the territories, meanwhile, continues to put constraints on what negotiators from both parties are able to do.

Israeli defense experts told the Cabinet on Sunday that the worsening situation in the territories, now sealed off from Israel for the second month in a row, is having a negative and potentially dangerous effect on the standing of the Palestinian negotiators and the pro-peace faction within the Palestinian camp.

The seriousness of threats against the lives of these negotiators is increasing, the experts were quoted as telling the ministers.

Some of the “doves” within the Cabinet, among them Tourism Minister Uzi Baram of the Labor Party and Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban of the left-wing Meretz bloc, urged that the gradual lifting of the closure be accelerated as a way to relieve the mounting tension in the territories.

By preventing Palestinians from reaching jobs in Israel, the closure has caused economic hardship and fueled frustration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The government has issued 45,000 work permits for Palestinians, but not all of them are actually being used. Roughly 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel daily before the closure.

Regarding the peace talks with Syria, David Afek, deputy head of the negotiating team with Syria, reportedly warned the Cabinet that the Syrians might make an Israeli declaration of readiness to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights a precondition for continuing the talks.

So far, Israel has been unwilling to discuss withdrawal from the Golan until it hears specifically from Syria about whether it is committed to a “full peace” with Israel that includes diplomatic, trade, tourism and cultural ties.

Afek reportedly indicated that despite the circularity of much of the discussion with the Syrians, and their obduracy on the key issue of “the nature of the peace,” there is reason to think that Damascus is prepared to negotiate full normalization, to come into effect simultaneously with an Israeli withdrawal.

Some ministers understood Afek to be signaling that Israel must make a political decision regarding the future of the Golan now.

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