JERUSALEM (Oct. 20)
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was doing his best this week to get the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations back on track, but neither side was making it easy for him.
Early this week, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said his country would boycott the peace talks if they remained “sterile.”
And when Ross arrived in Israel on Wednesday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told him that Syria must prove the seriousness of its intentions to make peace with Israel by curbing the terror activities of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon.
Ross, who is the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for the peace talks, arrived here after holding lengthy meetings in Tunis on Tuesday with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. diplomat had visited PLO headquarters.
Their conversation reportedly focused on the substantive issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who on Wednesday began their second round of talks in the Egyptian border town of Taba to find ways to implement the Palestinian self-rule accord signed last month in Washington.
Arafat apparently sought U.S. support for the PLO demand for a large and early release of prisoners being held by Israelis for security reasons.
Before flying to Israel, the U.S. envoy made a stopover in Amman, Jordan, where he met with King Hussein. Afterward, the Jordanian monarch announced a new initiative, calling for a “suprapolitical” Arab body, apparently headed by Jordan, to push forward Arab positions on such issues as the future status of Jerusalem.
Here in Jerusalem, the meeting between Rabin and Ross was largely devoted to discussion of the ongoing negotiations between Israeli and PLO officials regarding the implementation of the self-rule accord.
But Israeli sources speculated that Rabin and his high-level State Department guest may have devoted more time to Syria during a private meeting they held without aides.
These sources said that Rabin was clearly at pains, in the larger meeting, to stress both to Ross and to his own public that his prime concern at this time is the security aspects of the accord with the PLO.
The sources said Rabin wants to focus on the talks with the PLO while at the same time leaving room for negotiations with Syria.
JERUSALEM BILL PASSES KNESSET
Ross made clear, in remarks to reporters in Amman on Wednesday, that the United States would not oppose secret negotiations between Israel and Syria if that would help advance the peace process.
Those remarks, along with a decision earlier this week to postpone the next round of Washington peace talks until late November, appear to reflect a growing recognition on the part of the Americans that the current framework for the negotiations is not working.
A chief purpose of Ross’ Middle East mission this week was to determine what type of process would best jump-start the negotiations. After his meetings in Israel, the envoy was scheduled to fly to Damascus on Thursday.
After hearing a report on Ross’ talks in the region, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will decide whether to embark on a shuttle mission of his own next month.
While the United States is still hoping to see real progress in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations before the end of this year, there seems to be less urgency in both Damascus and Jerusalem.
Rabin’s remarks to Ross about Syria’s intentions were seen by some here as a clear signal to the American envoy that Israel would rather not embark right now on a second track of negotiations with Syria while it works with the PLO on implementing the autonomy accord.
Already the country is concerned about the security ramifications of Palestinians taking control of parts of the administered territories. The last thing the Israeli government needs is to trigger another wave of public concern over the future of the Golan Heights, whose complete return Syria is demanding as its price for peace.
Rabin’s domestic concerns were sharply highlighted Wednesday, soon after his session with Ross, when an opposition bill on the future status of Jerusalem won a majority in the Knesset on its first reading.
The bill, introduced by Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau, would forbid any Israeli government from negotiating over the status of Jerusalem. It now goes to the appropriate committee for action before final votes by the full Knesset.
The head of the government’s Knesset caucus, Eli Dayan, sought to minimize the significance of Wednesday’s vote, saying that government ministers and many Labor Knesset members were absent from the chamber for what he termed “technical reasons.”
But he could hardly disguise the fact that the majority of 36 included Knesset members from the Shas party, which had previously been part of the government coalition.
In the end, despite his frantic efforts, Dayan was able to amass only 33 votes to oppose the bill.
Dayan insisted the government is as committed as anyone to the unity of Jerusalem and that the bill was therefore unnecessary.
But Landau said the bill was needed “to immunize the government against itself.”
Political observers said the vote, though not a disaster for the government, would make Rabin more determined than ever to try to persuade the Israeli public that government is paying careful attention to the security aspects of the self-rule accord with the Palestinians.