U.S. is Committed to Retaining Current Format for Peace Talks

Despite talk in recent days about changing the format of the troubled Middle East peace negotiations, the United States reaffirmed its commitment this week to the so-called “Madrid formula” governing the talks.

“We’re going to continue to pursue the Madrid accords,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said at a news conference Wednesday prior to his departure for Asia and the Middle East. “I don’t think we need any change in the process.”

Instead, the United States will work within the rules set up in advance of the October 1991 peace conference in Madrid, to try to help Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement on establishing an interim self-government authority in the administered territories, Christopher said.

The secretary also spoke out on another issue affecting the peace talks: the recent violence in southern Lebanon. He said the United States was continuing to “urge restraint on all the parties involved there, because it’s not conducive to successful negotiations to have that kind of fighting going on.”

Because progress in the bilateral talks Israel is holding separately with the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan has been excruciatingly slow, various parties involved in the talks have suggested breaking away from the original Madrid format.

One major issue hindering progress in the talks has been the issue of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to discuss Jerusalem’s status at this stage of the talks, while the Israelis do not.

On the issue of Jerusalem, the secretary made the point that the city is “one of the most sensitive aspects of the negotiation.”

He added that Jerusalem is “a final status matter,” reserved for a later stage of the peace talks. But he had little else to say about the controversial topic.

U.S. ROLE HAS CHANGED

Some Palestinians, frustrated by the current rules, have suggested that the system governing the talks be changed.

And last month, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, who also serves as Israel’s chief negotiator with the Syrians, suggested, for different reasons, that the rules could be changed at a latter point if no progress were made.

But one Middle East expert said that, in fact, the rules of the talks have already been changed.

The American role in the talks has changed, said Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the relative significance of the bilateral negotiations may also have changed from that envisaged in the original format.

If Christopher and other high-ranking U.S. officials continue making frequent visits to the region, Satloff said, the actual negotiating rounds in Washington will decrease in significance.

But other aspects of the Madrid format, including the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization is not officially a part of the talks, are “inviolate,” Satloff said. “They won’t be changed.”

Throughout Christopher’s wide-ranging news conference, which focused on other world trouble spots in addition to the Middle East, the secretary refused to discuss various specifics on which the parties to the peace talks are currently negotiating.

As is traditional for a secretary of state about to depart for the Middle East, Christopher played down any expectations for quick progress as a result of his trip.

He will be in the region from July 31 to Aug. 4, with brief stops in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Israel again and Jordan.

‘I DON’T EXPECT ANY BREAKTHROUGHS’

“I don’t expect any breakthroughs,” Christopher said, adding that the purpose of his trip is to try to “make it easier” for the parties to communicate with one another.

Christopher also had little to say about an old idea that has taken on new life in recent days: an eventual confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians.

He said that at this stage, discussions should be focusing on the so-called interim self-governing authority, rather than plans for the longer term.

He also commented that the United States had not changed its policy on the question of whether or not the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied territories.

The question arose after the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations issued a document earlier this month, which the United States endorsed, referring to “the” occupied territories.

The article “the” was viewed by some as possibly representing a change in U.S. policy by being more specific about which territories are seen as occupied by Israel. By contrast, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli territorial concessions, refers more generally to “territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

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