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Israel Sends a Team to Tunis, in Part to Negotiate with PLO

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For the first time ever, Israel has sent an official delegation to Tunis, in part to discuss arrangements for Palestinian self-rule with officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is headquartered there.

The trip is significant because Israel and Tunisia do not have diplomatic relations. Last week, Tunisian officials were quoted as saying their government is ready to establish relations as soon as another Arab country does so.

Currently, Egypt is the only Arab country to have diplomatic ties with Israel. But in the wake of last week’s historic Israeli-PLO agreement on self-rule, several Arab countries, including Morocco and the Persian Gulf states, have indicated interest in making such a move.

The three members of the Israeli delegation reportedly were given a subdued reception by junior protocol officials of the Tunisian Foreign Ministry.

According to news reports from Tunis, the Interior Ministry banned camera crews from photographing the delegation’s arrival and told reporters they could not interview the three Israelis.

Officially, the Israeli team is in Tunis to help lay the groundwork for the next round of multilateral talks on refugees, scheduled to convene there Oct. 12-14.

But the team was also expected to take part in discussions with PLO officials on a variety of technical issues concerning the establishing of a Palestinian self-governing authority in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

The mission is the latest indication that Israel’s top priority in the peace process at the moment is implementing the agreement on Palestinian self-rule.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made that clear Sunday during his meeting with Hosni Mubarak at the Egyptian president’s summer residence in Alexandria.

Despite that stated priority, the two leaders devoted most of their meeting to discussing the prospects of peace with Syria.

Rabin is reported to have told Mubarak that Syria must curb attacks by the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement before any meaningful progress can be made toward a peace agreement with Israel.

MUBARAK SAYS SYRIA WANTS PEACE

“The purpose of our negotiations with Syria is to achieve a peace treaty,” Rabin told reporters after the meeting.

“We will continue to negotiate, but at this stage I see the key issue as good implementation of the agreements that were reached with the Palestinians,” he said.

But Mubarak was optimistic that Israel would soon reach an agreement with the regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad.

“I think Syria genuinely wants peace. I heard this from President Assad several times,” Mubarak said at a joint news conference after the summit meeting.

And in an interview Monday with Israel Radio, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said peace with Syria could be reached without delay if Damascus helps set the right tone.

“We don’t criticize anybody,” Peres said, referring to Syria, “but we feel peace must be (reached) in the proper air.”

Rabin has recently expressed his open distrust of Assad, saying that the Syrian leader offers peace “with one hand,” but “with the other hand” gives his support to militant Palestinian group based on Syrian soil.

Assad has given only qualified support to the Israeli-PLO agreement, and his country has for years served as host to some 10 militant Palestinian groups, including Hezbollah, that have vowed to derail the historic accord.

During the radio interview, Peres said he saw no reason why peace with Syria could not be achieved in the coming months despite Israel’s current focus on implementing the accord with the PLO.

He said peace with Syria would have to be “worked out very carefully,” away from the “headlines,” and that he believes Israelis are ready to make concessions to Syria because they are “sincerely seeking peace.”

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