Israelis, Jordanians Hold Talks Outside the Traditional Framework

In a clear demonstration that the format of the Washingtonbased Middle East talks is becoming more flexible, Israeli and Jordanian negotiators discussed banking issues at the State Department this week.

The discussions represented the first time one working group within an Arab-Israeli negotiating track had met here outside an officially scheduled round of talks.

The Middle East peace process, once strictly focused on the rounds of talks in Washington, is evolving to adapt to the momentous changes of the past two months, including the historic Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles and a subsequent Israeli-Jordanian agreement.

Israel and its Arab negotiating partners last met for an official round of talks in early September.

The Israeli-Jordanian negotiating track, which both parties have categorized over the months as businesslike and professional, includes a working group covering banking issues.

This week’s meetings, scheduled to run through Wednesday, focused on how Jordanian banks might operate in the West Bank in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

Israeli, Jordanian and U.S. officials were playing down any suggestions this week that the banking meetings represented a possible new trend for the talks.

Jordanian Ambassador Fayez Tarawneh said in an interview Tuesday that this was “not a new way” of handling the talks.

Jordan had pledged to help the Palestinians, and because no bilateral round was scheduled, the parties went ahead with their meetings at this point, Tarawneh said.

TALKS ‘ENTERING A NEW PHASE’

Israeli officials called this week’s meetings “positive” and a “good precedent.” But they cautioned against making too much of them as a possible departure from the Madrid framework governing the talks.

The United States, for its part, is defining the banking discussions as part of the Israeli-Jordanian negotiating track.

A State Department spokesman said Tuesday that the timing of this week’s “technical discussions on banking” did not constitute a new trend.

In recent weeks, the focus has shifted from Washington to Egypt, where Israelis and Palestinians have been conducting negotiations.

The Madrid format has been variously criticized by virtually all parties involved, but its basic outlines have proved fairly durable so far.

In remarks at a luncheon Tuesday sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Tarawneh noted that the Arab-Israeli talks are “entering a new phase.” But he said he still thinks that “we did not depart very much from the Madrid format,” at least “not yet.”

Many aspects of the original Madrid format, which was devised two years ago, are still valid. These include the terms of reference, the comprehensive nature of the talks, and their bilateral and multilateral structures, Tarawneh said.

The talks involve bilateral rounds between Israel and Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians; and multilateral regional talks on specific issues, including arms control and refugees.

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