JERUSALEM (Jun. 7)
The various parties to the Middle East peace process all sounded notes of distinct optimism this week as they prepared to return to Washington for the 10th round of bilateral negotiations.
Arab foreign ministers, meeting over the weekend in Amman, Jordan, even skipped the usual song and dance over whether or not they should attend the talks — a scene witnessed before nearly every previous round.
The ministers and the Palestinians made it clear to journalists that all the Arab parties would be present in the U.S. capital on schedule June 15, with the Palestinians arriving earlier for preliminary talks with American officials.
Indeed, the Jordanian host of the Arab gathering, Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali, formerly the country’s chief peace negotiator, asserted pointedly and repeatedly that Jordan and Israel are on the brink of signing an initial agreement setting forth the agenda of issues between them. Only technicalities remain, he said.
Across the river in Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres went even further. In upbeat remarks, Peres said Sunday, and repeated Monday, that Israel and Jordan had in effect reached agreement on a peace treaty.
What was lacking, said Peres, was “not the agreement — but the pen.” He added, more soberly, that it would be difficult for Jordan to be the first of the Arab parties to sign with Israel.
Peres’ purpose, like that of the Arab leaders in Amman, was apparently intended to create a favorable atmosphere, conducive to progress, for the coming round of negotiations.
Perhaps more importantly, Israeli diplomatic sources said they had a clear signal from Washington that the United States would be playing an active role in the upcoming round of talks.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a recent not-for-attribution briefing later relayed to the Israelis, spoke of the need for such American involvement, particularly in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
POTENTIAL FOR REAL PROGRESS
Here, Christopher reportedly said, he sensed the potential for significant progress at this time and the opportunity for the United States to serve as spur for achieving that goal.
The secretary and his senior aides feel that U.S. efforts at the end of the last round brought Israelis and Palestinians close to agreeing upon a joint statement of principles.
There was disappointment when this was not eventually achieved. But the Americans were encouraged by the general impact of their efforts on both sides.
American officials still hope to get the sides to adopt the statement, hence their invitation to the Israelis and Palestinians to hold preliminary talks in Washington before the full round opens.
U.S. officials also hope that with the injection of active American input, the Israeli-Syrian talks can be given a substantial push.
The hopeful mood has affected even those perennial skeptics, the Palestinians.
Yasir Abed Rabbo, a key aide to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, this week swept aside any thought of the Palestinians delaying their arrival in Washington or conditioning their participation in the talks on human rights improvements in the territories.
The PLO clearly is instructing the Palestinian negotiating team to deal with the nuts and bolts of the Israeli autonomy proposals, while canvassing for human rights concessions in a parallel but not necessarily linked effort.
ABDEL-SHAFI NOT CALLING THE SHOTS
One of the working groups set up during the last round is concerned with human rights in the territories. This panel will press on with its work, but without being linked to the autonomy talks.
In this vein, too, the Palestinian negotiators and their Tunis-based PLO political masters gave short shrift this week to the by-now customary negativism voiced by Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator.
Both Faisal Husseini of Jerusalem, who is the overall head of the Palestinian delegation, and the PLO leadership in Tunis made it clear that Abdel-Shafi does not call the shots when it comes to deciding whether or under what conditions the Palestinians will participate in the peace talks.
Abdel-Shafi is disturbed by the deteriorating economic and social situation inside the territories, now in the third month of being closed off from Israel proper.
Israel’s highly publicized arrest of more than 120 Moslem fundamentalist militants will doubtless add both to resentment in the territories and to strains between the pro-PLO, pro-peace camp and the fundamentalist hard-liners.
Abdel-Shafi, a physician from the Gaza Strip, where the fundamentalists draw their strongest support, finds himself squarely in the middle of these conflicting pressures.