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Peace Talks Proceeding Slowly, with Focus on Procedural Issues

Officials involved in the Middle East peace talks are offering contrasting assessments of the potential for progress in this round of negotiations.

Most observers agree that this round has moved at a slow pace and that the United States will have to provide the momentum to push the negotiators toward some sort of agreement.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Wednesday that he expects “good progress” in this 10th round of bilateral talks that Israel is holding with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

“I think we’ll make progress in this round before the round is done,” the secretary said. “I think I’d guide you to watch these matters develop over the next several days.”

King Hussein of Jordan, on a visit to Washington, also expressed some optimism Wednesday concerning the overall situation in the Middle East’s search for peace.

Addressing a gathering at the Brookings Institution, Hussein said that “we have moved, maybe slowly, but I believe we have covered a lot of ground so far.”

On the subject of the talks itself, though, both Israelis and Palestinians involved in the talks offered downbeat assessments.

At a news conference Wednesday, Hanan Ashrawi, the spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, said a breakthrough “doesn’t look very likely.”

And Itamar Rabinovich, who serves as ambassador here and as chief Israeli negotiator with the Syrians, said Thursday that there had been “no headline-making news” so far in the talks.

“If you’re looking for breakthroughs, they have not happened in the past two weeks,” Rabinovich told a group of Jewish journalists.

TIME TO CHANGE ‘MADRID RULES’?

Substantive discussions have been eclipsed by more procedural discussions concerning three issues: the extent of American involvement in the talks, the legitimate topics of discussion at this point in the talks and whether or not the rules governing the talks should be changed.

Rabinovich has said in recent days that if there is no progress in the talks soon, the Madrid rules governing the peace process may need to be changed.

“The Madrid formula is something that should not be easily tampered with. It took a long time and a major effort to put it together, and I will not be the one to advocate that we abandon it or that we introduce radical changes in it,” he said Thursday outside the State Department.

“But if for several rounds the format as such has not yielded results, then we might entertain the notion of some changes. And a couple of these changes have already occurred, particularly with regard to the pattern of American involvement,” he added.

Later Thursday, however, the ambassador said that changing the Madrid format “is a matter for future speculation not for our current effort.”

As has been the case throughout this round, the focus this week was on the American role in the talks.

Since the last round, the Americans have been attempting to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward agreement on a joint statement.

But movement has been hampered by the issue of Jerusalem, and both Ashrawi and Rabinovich, without closing the door on the possibility, expressed a degree of doubt that any agreement on a statement could be reached this round.

The Palestinians, concerned that the Israelis are creating “facts on the ground” that would permanently separate eastern Jerusalem from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have raised the Jerusalem issue in this round.

The Israelis, for their part, say Jerusalem is not an issue to be discussed in this stage of the negotiations.

U.S. ‘COMMITTED’ TO ASSURANCES

Ashrawi, in her briefing Wednesday, said the Palestinians were concerned that the Americans were not being forceful enough in backing up their letter of assurances given to all the parties before the peace opened with a conference in Madrid in October 1991.

The U.S. letter of assurances to the Palestinians states, among other points, that the United States is “opposed to the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem” and encourages “all sides to avoid unilateral acts that would exacerbate local tensions or make negotiations more difficult or pre-empt their final outcome.”

Christopher said Thursday that the United States remains “committed” to the assurances.

But Ashrawi said that the letters should be backed up by an “enforcement mechanism.”

King Hussein, who met Thursday with Secretary of State Christopher, said in his Brookings remarks that progress would be more likely if the Palestinians were given more of a sense of what the final outcome of the talks would be.

He said there is a “need maybe to clarify for the Palestinian people more what the end result might look like of all these very worthy efforts that are ongoing.”

“If that were to happen, and I hope and pray it will, then I’m sure that progress will be rapid on transitional arrangements and on all others,” the king said.

Currently, the rules governing the talks divide the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations into interim and final-status phases. The talks are currently in the interim stage.

Progress has also been slow on the other negotiating tracks.

Rabinovich said that until progress is reached on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, there will be no breakthrough with Jordan or Lebanon.

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