U.S. Peace Mission to Mideast Stymied by Border Hostilities

American envoy Dennis Ross’ visit to the Middle East this week did little to boost the Arab-Israeli peace process, which was overshadowed by a surge of violence in southern Lebanon.

Though Ross shuttled back and forth between Israel and various Arab capitals, holding a myriad of meetings with political leaders and peace negotiators, his team appeared to make little progress in breaking the deadlock in the talks, which recessed in Washington two weeks ago after a fruitless 10th round.

Ross’ message midweek was essentially that the long, hard, frustrating slog continues. “Clearly, this is a process where discussions are designed to find ways to narrow gaps,” he told reporters, avoiding specifics.

“I think it is clear we have to get comments from both sides, and that’s what we are in the process of doing,” he said.

Ross, the U.S. coordinator of the peace talks, arrived in Israel last Thursday and proceeded to make stops in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. He returned to Israel on Monday for further talks with Palestinians and Israelis, and was expected to leave before the end of the week.

Israeli sources said the American team was “moderately optimistic” as a result of the talks in the region. The Israelis said the Americans were satisfied that both Israel and the Palestinians were prepared to regard a U.S. draft proposal as a serious basis for a joint declaration of principles.

But Palestinian negotiators noted that they presented the American team with their own draft statement.

WILL CHRISTOPHER COME NEXT?

Ross himself added, encouragingly, that “everybody is very serious in that effort.” He declined, however, to speculate publicly as to whether or when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher might himself fly into the region.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told an Israel Radio reporter that his impression was that Ross would recommend that Christopher make the personal trip.

Everyone involved in the negotiating effort — including Christopher himself — has indicated that a trip by the secretary would signify a meaningful breakthrough.

But it is believed that Christopher will come only if he can attend the signing, by Israel and the Palestinians, of the declaration of principles that has so far eluded them and remains the substance of the present logjam.

Peres, nearly always upbeat with his statements on the peace talks, could only say, “What is clear is that all parties are interested in continuing the peace process. No one has abandoned it.”

Sources on both sides point to the issues of Jerusalem and the jurisdiction of a future autonomy plan as the two sticking points still under intense discussion.

Adding to the obstacles confronting Ross’ peace mission was a series of violent clashes in southern Lebanon that sidetracked his discussions in the region.

Five Israeli soldiers were killed in two separate incidents on Thursday and Friday of last week, with another soldier critically injured and seven more recovering from lighter wounds.

Katyusha rockets fired into northern Israel and retaliatory shelling by Israel and its allied South Lebanon Army once again disrupted civilian life on both sides of the border.

JABRIL ORDERED OUT OF LEBANON

The United States urged restraint in a public statement Monday, as Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, and Cabinet ministers warned that Israel was considering sharp counter-blows against the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrilla groups in southern Lebanon responsible for the escalation.

Israeli sources singled out Ahmed Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, whose headquarters are in Damascus. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin charged that arms from Iran are reaching southern Lebanon via Damascus and called upon Syria to block the arms route.

Rabin reportedly sent a message, via Ross, to Syrian President Hafez Assad, warning him to rein in Hezbollah and the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, reports from Lebanon said the Beirut government had ordered Jabril to leave the country, after he held a news conference at the Ein Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon.

Ross and his team discussed the security situation Tuesday with Rabin, Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, Barak of the IDF and other senior officials.

The session originally had been intended to wrap up Ross’ diplomatic shuttle in the area and be devoted to issues holding up the peace talks. Instead, a considerable part of the time was taken up with the Lebanon border situation.

Israeli sources said after the meeting that Ross had returned with no specific reply for Rabin from Assad. Nevertheless, Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein reported somberly in public comments: “Our concern is fully known — both in Washington and in Damascus.”

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