Christopher Plans Mideast Trip As New Proposals on Peace Swirl

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will return to the Middle East next week amid discussion of a variety of proposals to break the deadlock in the peace negotiations, including some ideas that would significantly change the current framework.

The need to review the overall situation in the peace talks has became more urgent due to differences of opinion within the Palestinian camp and, to a certain extent, within the Israeli political community on the effectiveness of the present format of the negotiations.

Christopher is expected to focus his talks on the alternatives that have been raised in recent days by both Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and key members of the Palestinian delegation.

Most importantly, these proposals aim to discuss the final status of the territories, rather than merely an interim settlement, in the current phase of the talks.

Both Peres and some Palestinian leaders have renewed talk of creating a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as an alternative to a transitional Palestinian self-government in the territories, which has been the declared goal of the current talks.

Proposals have also been raised to speed up the process of giving the Palestinians certain powers and authority, independent of progress in the peace process.

At least some of these ideas are considered premature by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His office said the premier feels Israel should continue present negotiations for a transitional period of self-rule, in accordance with the guidelines for the peace talks laid down before the October 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

And in Jordan, Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali declared that a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation could take place only after a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and not independently of such a settlement.

The fact that Palestinian influentials such as Saeb Erekat, deputy head of the Palestinian delegation, are speaking of reassessing the structure of the peace process is seen here as a reflection of deep division within the Palestinian political community and the need of the moderates to appease the extremists.

‘JUDAIZATION’ OF JERUSALEM CITED

Palestinian opponents of the peace process convened last weekend in eastern Jerusalem for a mass rally in which the key speaker was Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian negotiating team.

The meeting ended with a statement that there would be no peace without the return of eastern Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty. It emphasized the right of the Palestinians to achieve their rights in Jerusalem and prevent the “Judaization” of the city.

America’s position on the proposals raised by Peres and others should become clearer during Christopher’s visit. Initial reports from Washington indicated that the Americans are hesitant to stray from the Madrid formula, fearing such a deviation might set back the entire peace process.

Christopher is expected to visit the Middle East from Aug. 1 to 5, with likely stops in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria.

“I wouldn’t expect that this trip will achieve any major breakthroughs, but I do think it’s a part of a process that we want to pursue with great determination to assist the parties,” he told reporters in Washington late last week.

The secretary’s trip follows a recently concluded Middle East visit by Dennis Ross, the U.S. coordinator for the peace talks, who attempted, apparently unsuccessfully, to jump-start the negotiations from their semi-stalled state.

The Clinton administration has so far focused its efforts on trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a joint declaration of principles regarding an autonomy plan.

Part of the problem revolves around the issue of Jerusalem. While Israel feels Jerusalem should not be discussed at this point in the negotiations — at least in its current format — the Palestinians disagree.

U.S. officials have been hinting that if progress is not reached soon, they may put a lower priority on the search for Middle East peace.

“This is really the year that they need to try to get into the issues that lie at the heart of this negotiation,” State Department spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters in Washington.

“As we say over and over again, we can’t do for the parties what they must do themselves, which is to address these issues, make hard choices and go about the work of trying to build a framework for lasting peace in the region.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Deborah Kalb in Washington.)

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