Little Progress Seen in Washington, but Israelis Still Hopeful on Accord

Israeli officials attending the latest round of the peace talks here are still hopeful that a proposed agreement for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho could be signed by Sept. 13.

But State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said Tuesday that no date had yet been set for a signing ceremony because “at this point we’re waiting to hear from the parties themselves on the status of their discussions.”

As Israeli and Arab negotiators continued their talks here, there was little substantive progress reported.

Instead, everyone seemed to be waiting for news from the Middle East about a proposed mutual recognition pact between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

That pact, although not spelled out as a prerequisite, is nonetheless seen as important to the success of a proposed agreement for limited Palestinian self-rule that was reached last month and approved last week by the Israeli Cabinet.

The accord was hammered out during a series of secret meetings between Israeli and PLO officials far from the limelight of Washington.

The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Hadashot as saying that Israel might be more flexible now about one particular sticking point in negotiations over an Israeli-PLO mutual recognition pact.

Israel, he said, would not demand that the Palestine Covenant, the PLO’s political charter, be repealed by the Palestine National Council prior to such a pact.

Arafat has been anxious to avoid calling a meeting of the more than 400 members of the PNC at this stage, since it could provide a platform for his opponents and could slow down the signing of the agreement with Israel.

STILL HOPING FOR SEPT. 13 SIGNING

Rabinovich was quoted as saying that Israel, recognizing the difficulties involved, would settle for a declaration by the PLO leadership, repealing those sections in the covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, to be followed by a formal confirmation at a later date.

Eytan Bentsur, the Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians and Jordanians, voiced optimism Tuesday about a signing ceremony that would be held here on Sept. 13, a date proposed by the United States.

“I am hopeful that by Monday we will all witness a signing ceremony,” he said. “The chances seem quite good as of today.”

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Bentsur said that Israel hoped the signing would be a “dual achievement,” formalizing both the plan for limited Palestinian self-rule in Jericho and Gaza as well as the Israeli-PLO mutual recognition pact.

Both Bentsur and Rabinovich expressed optimism that future agreements with Jordan and Syria will come as a result of the breakthrough on the Palestinian negotiating track.

Israel is currently in the 11th round of talks with the Palestinians, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Rabinovich, who also serves as chief negotiator with the Syrians, told a group of Jewish journalists Tuesday that there was no progress, but “no acrimony either” in the latest negotiating session with the Syrians.

The two parties have been stalled for weeks over some key definitions: Israel wants Syria to define the “full peace” it is offering in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights; the Syrians want Israel to spell out the extent of that withdrawal before they make any offer of peace.

Syrian negotiator Mowaffak al-Allaf emerged from Tuesday’s meeting with a decidedly negative assessment.

“Unfortunately, there is no progress whatsoever,” he said, echoing remarks he made in previous negotiating rounds.

Before traveling to Egypt and Oman to secure support for the draft agreement on Palestinian self-rule, PLO leader Yasir Arafat left Damascus on Monday with only a qualified statement of support from the Syrian leader.

Rabinovich called Syrian President Hafez Assad’s “lukewarm endorsement” of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement “not a disappointment.”

With Congress now back in town, questions are beginning to arise about the cost of paying for the implementation of Palestinian self-rule in Jericho and Gaza.

Rabinovich said Tuesday that the United States had done a great deal to help the peace process, and “need not be encumbered” by providing the Palestinians with large amounts of aid.

“The emphasis,” he said, “is on other nations providing the bulk of the financial aid.”

Scandinavian and European countries, as well as possibly Japan and the wealthy Arab states will provide the bulk of the aid, the Israeli officials said.

The World Bank has summoned a meeting for Palestinians, other Arab countries and Israelis in Washington for Sept. 20 to discuss the economic needs of the territories. According to the World Bank, the territories will need some $4.3 billion in investments within the next 10 years.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem.)

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