Peace Talks Open in Washington Amid Lowered Expectations

The 10th round of Middle East peace talks opened this week amid lowered expectations and a sense that while slow progress was possible, any quick breakthroughs were unlikely.

In contrast to the last round of talks in late April and early May, which were noteworthy both because the parties had not met for months, and because they represented the debut of the Clinton administration as “full partner” in the process, the start of this round Tuesday was more low-key.

In back-to-back news conferences following the opening sessions Tuesday morning, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators offered differing versions of the situation in the Middle East.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said the negotiations were “progressively becoming more difficult with each round,” because of conditions “on the ground” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including the Israeli closure of the territories.

Israeli spokeswoman Ruth Yaron offered a more positive assessment of Middle East conditions, citing a recently completed round of multilateral talks that she said had shown progress, a statement by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia citing the importance of the peace process and the recent decision by Kuwait to no longer abide by the secondary economic boycott of Israel.

Meanwhile, in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that progress in this round would depend on the Arabs.

After meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Christopher told Israel Television that progress would “require a good deal of movement from the other side, from the Palestinians and others.

“But I think we’re going to have a good round,” Christopher added.

He and Peres were in Vienna this week for the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights.

2 WORKING GROUPS SET UP

Yaron said that in the first meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, the two sides agreed to set up two working groups. One, a continuation of a group set up in the last round, will deal with human rights issues.

The second will focus on the wording of a joint statement of principles, Yaron said. In the previous round, the United States had attempted unsuccessfully to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a joint statement.

The declaration would lay out terms for Palestinian self-rule in the territories.

Yaron’s remarks were in contrast to those of Ashrawi, who said that the Palestinians would rather focus on core issues of substance, rather than progress reports.

On the Israeli-Syrian track, Yaron said recent press reports quoting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin saying that Israel would not give back the entire Golan Heights to Syria even in return for full peace were erroneous.

She said Rabin had been “misquoted.”

The last round, the ninth in the series of bilateral negotiations between Israel and Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians, ended with expressions of regret that more had not been accomplished.

This 10th round was preceded by upbeat, optimistic statements emanating from Israel and Jordan. In another positive sign, the Arab parties appeared on time in Washington without making their participation in the talks an issue, in contrast to the previous round.

But Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, who also serves as Israel’s chief negotiator with the Syrians, said that he “wouldn’t use the optimistic-pessimistic spectrum” to judge progress of the talks, because progress on the four negotiating tracks could occur at different speeds.

In an interview last week with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabinovich discussed the four negotiating tracks and the American role as self-proclaimed “full partner” in the peace process.

U.S. MAY PROVIDE ‘BRIDGING PROPOSALS’

The Clinton administration has pledged to make the peace talks a high priority, and said it would step in to provide “bridging proposals” if the parties needed such assistance.

In fact, Rabinovich said Friday, the Americans have already done so on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Toward the end of the last round, the Americans, in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to salvage some sense of progress from what was becoming a rapidly deteriorating situation, attempted to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a joint statement.

Rabinovich said it was possible that during this 10th round, a “mutually acceptable joint statement” could be agreed upon.

He said he hoped that “serious work could be done on this round.”

Ashrawi said Tuesday that the Palestinians were engaging in talks with the U.S. government about American positions on such controversial issues as Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the territories.

The answers the Palestinians were receiving from the Americans, she said, were “not very satisfactory,” and more talks were taking place. She said she hoped the U.S. administration would be “evenhanded” during the negotiations, and not take sides.

Ashrawi said the Palestinians did not feel it was necessary to reach agreement on a joint statement with Israel that would serve as a progress report, but instead that the two sides should work on more substantive issues such as security and jurisdiction.

Regarding the Syrians, Rabinovich said he was “not prognosticating.” The last round with the Syrians got mired in a debate over definitions of terms.

Rabinovich called the Syrian formula “full peace for full withdrawal” — referring to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace between the two countries — a “gimmick.”

The Israelis, who are seeking a peace with Syria complete with such manifestations as trade relations and exchanges of ambassadors, are waiting for Syria to define what they mean by “full peace.”

Meanwhile, the Syrians, who want Israel to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, are waiting for the Israelis to define what type of withdrawal they are contemplating.

Rabinovich said that the Israelis feel locked in a “vicious cycle.”

But, he said, in contrast to a year ago, the situation is “not so bad.

“A year ago, we would not have thought we would be poking holes in a Syrian gimmick based on the words ‘full withdrawal, full peace,’ ” he said.

He said it was “premature” to discuss whether the United States would play a more direct role in the Israeli-Syrian talks during this round, but indicated that the United States could play such a role in the future to “finalize” a deal between the two parties.

Yaron said Tuesday that in their meeting that morning, the Israelis and the Syrians had begun discussing security issues.

In response to a question about what new proposals the Israelis might be bringing to this round of talks, Rabinovich said the Israelis had “brought several new ideas” over the last few rounds, and that it was “not wise to dilute” them by adding more.

While the Palestinian and Syrian tracks are viewed as higher-profile and thus receive most of the attention, the Lebanese and Jordanian tracks are also continuing.

There are no real problems on the Jordanian track, Rabinovich said. The two sides have been discussing a range of issues, and most observers agree that the only thing barring an agreement between the two sides is that the Jordanians do not want to move far beyond the other Arab parties.

Thus, any breakthrough with Jordan would have to wait for further progress on the Palestinian or Syrian tracks.

Rabinovich said he was disappointed with the lack of progress on the Lebanese track during the last round. Yaron said Tuesday that the Israelis hope that the two sides could achieve progress in establishing a military working group to deal with security issues.

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