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After Little Progress in Washington, Focus of Peace Talks Shifts to Region

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As the focus of the Middle East peace process now shifts from Washington to the capitals in the region, the United States is cautioning that breakthroughs may be several months away.

In fact, if there is one point on which the Israelis and their Arab negotiating partners agree, it is that progress was almost nonexistent in the 10th round of bilateral talks that ended here last week.

Before departing, both the Israelis and the Palestinians expressed disappointment with a long-awaited American draft document attempting to bridge large gaps between the two sides on crucial issues, including Jerusalem’s status.

And there was general consensus that the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track had also not advanced.

In the face of this public negativity emanating from both the Israeli and Arab sides, the United States is trying to inject both substantive and psychological momentum into the process.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, meanwhile, flew to Cairo for a two-day visit aimed at enlisting the Egyptians’ help in persuading the Palestinians to be more flexible.

The State Department is now attempting to define the peace process as what one senior department official termed a “continuum,” or a continuing set of discussions encompassing both the rounds of face-to-face talks among the parties in Washington and other ongoing contacts the United States has had with the parties.

The senior official, who is closely following the talks, told reporters last Thursday that the process is now at a point where the parties are dealing with difficult problems and decisions, and that immediate breakthroughs are not likely.

The role of the United States at this point, the official said, is to raise the comfort level of the parties and then determine whether progress is possible.

“What you can do is begin to change the circumstances and begin to condition attitudes in such a way that you can not only narrow gaps, but you can get everybody increasingly comfortable with the need to make certain decisions and then determine whether or not in fact you can make real progress,” the official said.

The Clinton administration has stressed that 1993 represents a unique opportunity for the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese to reach agreements.

In the hope of achieving such an agreement before the end of the year, Dennis Ross, the State Department’s peace talks coordinator, is heading an American delegation to the Middle East this week, and there is talk that Secretary of State Warren Christopher may also travel to the region soon.

One idea behind the trips is to involve higher-level Middle East decision-makers, including heads of state, more directly in the process.

The State Department has suggested that one reason the process has been bogged down is that the negotiating teams do not have the authority to move beyond their already-stated positions.

DISPUTE OVER JERUSALEM

The two key negotiating tracks, the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks, were stalled this round. On the Israeli-Palestinian track, the major impediment was the issue of Jerusalem.

“I want to characterize this round as the round of Jerusalem,” Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told reporters last week.

The Palestinians, concerned that Israel’s closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is creating “facts on the ground” that would separate those territories from eastern Jerusalem, raised the issue of the city’s future status.

But the Israelis say that the issue of Jerusalem should not be discussed at this phase of the negotiations.

Instead, they want the Palestinians to focus on an Israeli “early empowerment” offer that would give the Palestinians control of their daily lives in the territories, in such areas as education, health and even police protection.

The Palestinians, however, say that the “early empowerment” idea would fragment Palestinian authority.

While nobody was offering any specifics of what the informal American paper presented to the parties Wednesday contained, both sides were clearly displeased with it.

One sticking point in the U.S. document was the issue of Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiator Haider Abdel-Shafi told reporters here last Thursday that the paper “does not deal in any reasonable or factual manner with the issue of Jerusalem.”

And the Israelis said the document was more problematic than a previous American draft proposal given to the two sides at the end of the ninth round in May.

The paper did get a boost Monday from Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who told reporters after meeting with his Israeli counterpart that the document is worthy of studying.

But here in Washington, the senior State Department official told reporters that agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on a joint declaration of principles or “framework document” could be “several months down the line.”

On the Israeli-Syrian track, the two sides remained mired in definitions of terms, as they have been for months.

The Israelis are waiting for the Syrians to spell out what sort of “full peace” they are contemplating, before announcing their own plans regarding the future of the Golan Heights.

The Jordanian and Lebanese tracks are viewed as not having the potential for movement until progress occurs on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks.

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