News Analysis: Israelis Hoping Visit by U.S. Team Will Break Deadlock in Peace Talks

Fresh from a visit to Cairo, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is radiating optimism about closing the gap between Israeli and Palestinian positions in the Middle East peace talks.

But U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned earlier this week that unless real progress is made soon, Washington will turn its attention to other pressing foreign concerns.

Many in the region are turning their eyes toward a team of U.S. State Department peace makers who were expected to arrive here at the end of the week.

The delegation, led by Dennis Ross, recently appointed as the American coordinator of the peace talks, will be trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a joint declaration of principles regarding Palestinian autonomy.

“I very much hope that his mission will help positions, especially on the Arab side, to allow the continuation of the negotiations to bring results,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Wednesday.

Peres and his Egyptian hosts indicated in Cairo that the American draft proposal for the joint declaration is a basis for further negotiations — despite negative pronouncements on the paper made earlier in the week by both Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

That view was also voiced Wednesday by Secretary of State Christopher in Tokyo, where he was attending the summit meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.

Christopher told reporters that there was “no surprise at all, at least not on my behalf,” that the Israelis and Palestinians had both expressed displeasure with the American draft document.

“I do not regard that as, by any means, the end of the story,” he said. “It’s just a step in a rather long book.”

Here in Israel, Peres said he believes an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough is, in fact, much nearer than the outward signs indicate, while Egyptian officials implied they would help urge the Palestinians forward.

“We are helping,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Israeli reporters accompanying the foreign minister on the two-day trip, which ended Tuesday.

‘CHEMISTRY’ BETWEEN PERES AND MUBARAK

Mubarak stressed that Egypt cannot speak for the Palestinians. But it was clear that he and his top ministers were determined to speak to the Palestinians and exhort them to moderate their positions.

Arafat, who passed through Cairo briefly during Peres’ stay there, is due back in Egypt this weekend for more extensive talks.

Egyptian officials made a point of telling Israeli reporters that there is “real chemistry” between their president and the Israeli foreign minister, implying that their talks in Alexandria could perhaps help break the deadlock over the peace process.

Meanwhile, the American effort to overcome the present impasse acquired a higher profile with Christopher’s somber warning earlier this week that America’s patience, in effect, is wearing thin.

During an appearance Sunday on the NBC television talk show “Meet the Press,” Christopher said pointedly that he and President Clinton had their hands full with other world affairs and could not invest their efforts endlessly in Middle East peacemaking if they felt the parties themselves were not sincerely interested.

Ross’ mission, which will involve shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, and between Israel and neighboring Arab countries, stands to serve as an American test of the parties’ resolve in making peace.

Ross and his assistants will be joined later in his trip by Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, who has been designated as America’s next ambassador to Israel.

The American warning about the administration’s continued peace efforts should influence both the Israeli government — which was elected on a pro-peace ticket — and the Palestinians, who have long urged a more vigorous American role in the peace process.

As for the Syrian-Israeli talks, Peres said he believes progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track would trigger a new surge forward in the negotiations with Damascus.

Mubarak, too, stressed his view, publicly and in his long meeting with Peres, that Syrian President Hafez Assad is firmly set on the road to peace with Israel.

Israeli sources said they expected that if the Ross effort results in tangible success, then Christopher may visit the region himself later this month to preside over some formal acceptance by Israel and the Palestinians of the sought-after declaration of principles.

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