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Peace Talks Are Plodding Along, but Progress Still Seen Possible

Although the 10th round of Middle East peace talks has gotten off to a slow start, there is still hope of achieving progress.

“Nobody’s closing the door on this round,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He said that in previous rounds, there has been a lot of posturing in the first week of talks and discussions of substance thereafter.

The chances of success have been boosted by the Clinton administration’s apparent decision to invest more heavily in the bilateral talks Israel has been conducting separately with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

President Clinton’s statement last Friday that he intends to take a more “direct role” in the talks is being seen as the type of stepped-up American involvement that could give the slow paced talks a real push forward.

But observers say that until progress is made in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the other “tracks” have little chance of moving forward.

With American help, the Israelis and Palestinians spent the first week of this round trying to reach agreement on a joint statement of principles. But that effort was hampered by disagreements over the issue of Jerusalem, a subject on which the two sides are far apart.

“The question of Jerusalem is emerging as a new roadblock issue,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now.

While Jerusalem was supposed to be a subject discussed only at a later phase of negotiations, it has reared its head during this 10th round, because of Palestinian concerns.

A ‘PRESCRIPTION FOR STALLING’

The Palestinians fear that the current Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will create “facts on the ground” that will permanently separate those territories from eastern Jerusalem, where much of the Palestinian leadership resides.

The Israelis, on the other hand, maintain that the issue of Jerusalem concerns the final status of disputed territory, which is supposed to be dealt with only after an interim autonomy arrangement has been implemented in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians’ insistence on discussing issues such as Jerusalem that “belong in the second phase” is a “prescription for stalling the talks,” an Israeli official said.

American officials are trying to come up with a formula that will remove the Jerusalem issue from the table for the time being.

Meanwhile, the Israelis and Palestinians met in working groups last week dealing with autonomy, land and water issues, and human rights.

They made some progress on their discussions of the nature of the interlocking language between the various phases of their negotiations, observers said.

On the Syrian track, considered one of the two most important, Israeli and Syrian negotiators continued to be bogged down over definitions of terms.

The Syrians have said they will offer “full peace” for “full withdrawal,” but the Israelis are waiting for the Syrians to define what they mean by “full peace.”

In addition, the two sides spent some time in the first week of the round discussing security issues.

Israeli Ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, who also serves as the head of the Israeli team negotiating with the Syrians, linked progress on this track to improvements in the U.S.-Syrian relationship.

“Before that is settled, I doubt if there will be much progress in our negotiations,” he told a gathering of the American Jewish Press Association last week.

In fact, the American role is considered by most observers to be crucial.

They note that historically there have been no significant Middle East breakthroughs without correspondingly significant American investments of time and political capital. But this administration, they say, has yet to put itself on the line over this issue.

Because the Middle East is so volatile and changeable, they say, any progress must be achieved at a faster pace than that at which the talks are currently proceeding.

CLINTON APPOINTMENTS HAILED

Rabinovich said last week that if the talks do not yield some progress soon, it may be necessary to “start contemplating some fresh approaches” to the peace process, such as unilateral Israeli action.

But he said that at this point, it is “premature to discuss any changes” in the rules governing the talks.

The Clinton administration, for its part, seems to be pushing for something to happen this calendar year.

President Clinton and visiting Jordanian King Hussein both said last Friday that they were committed to achieving progress in 1993.

And the Egyptian ambassador to Washington, Ahmed Maher EI Sayed, told the Jewish press association last week that he expects some form of agreement on most of the negotiating tracks before the end of the year.

The Clinton administration has signaled its seriousness about the process by naming Dennis Ross, a veteran member of the U.S. team dealing with the talks, to a newly created State Department post for coordinating the negotiations. Ross had been scheduled to return to academia in the near future.

And Clinton’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Israel, Edward Djerejian, will stay on for a few months in his current position as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, so that he can continue playing a key role in the peace talks.

“We are very pleased with the two nominations,” an Israeli official said. “We see in them the implementation of the commitment of the administration to be a full partner in the peace talks.”

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