JERUSALEM (Nov. 23)
When U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher travels to the Middle East in the second week of December, he will attempt to accomplish two things.
First, he will launch an effort to put the Washington-based bilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors back on track.
Second, he will seek to ensure that all the details of the self-rule accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are completed by Dec. 13, when the PLO is scheduled to assume authority in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.
The bilateral talks were relegated to a back burner this fall following the success of secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, earlier this year that led to the historic signing of the Israeli-PLO self-rule accord in September.
The resumption of the talks, particularly with Syria, is seen as the key to the establishment of a comprehensive peace in the region.
Israel’s negotiations with Syria have been in limbo for months, prompting officials of the Clinton administration to urge Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to resume the talks with Damascus.
Rabin, who met with President Clinton two weeks ago in Washington, told his Cabinet on Monday that he is ready to negotiate with “whoever is ready to negotiate with us” — an apparent reference to Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Some ministers and observers saw the statement as a shift from the prime minister’s previous preference to conclude the implementation of the self-rule accord with the PLO before turning his attention to neighboring states.
Rabin, just back from a 10-day visit to North America, was quoted as telling ministers that he, like Christopher, was worried by the suspension of the Washington talks.
But in return for the “full peace” Rabin would like to establish with Syria, he will likely have to make concessions for a return of at least part of the Golan Heights — a touchy subject on the Israeli domestic front.
JORDAN READY FOR PRACTICAL ACCORDS
Rabin meanwhile has apparently managed to defuse a threat from Labor hard-liners to join the Likud party in a bid to pass legislation that would limit the government’s right to negotiate withdrawal on the Golan Heights.
Assad’s displeasure with Israel’s signing of a separate agreement with the PLO, along with his insistence that only a comprehensive regional peace will succeed, has had its effect on Jordan.
Jordan has shown clear signs of reluctance to go ahead with a formal peace treaty with Israel as long as the Israeli-Syrian track remains paralyzed.
But at the same time, King Hussein and his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, who has acted on behalf of the king, are easing up on their former refusal to allow economic agreements and other practical elements of a normalization of relations to develop between Jordan and Israel.
The king is understood to have told Assad, when they met in Damascus on Sunday, that while he will hold off on a formal peace agreement with Israel, he will allow these practical elements to grow and take shape.
It is not clear yet how this new Jordanian policy will play out.
Last week, a high-level group of Jordanian businessmen visited Israel and met openly with leaders in the public and private sectors.
And in the various multilateral talks, Israeli representatives have encountered a new openness on the part of the Jordanians.
This despite a decision by the Arab League, which held an ambassador-level meeting Monday, to continue the Arab boycott against Israel pending the conclusion of a comprehensive peace settlement.
Regarding Christopher’s second goal — to ensure the successful implementation of the Israeli-PLO accord — Israeli and Palestinian sources were reporting good progress midweek on arrangements for the withdrawal and redeployment of the Israel Defense Force in Gaza, but less satisfactory progress regarding Jericho.
The talks between Israel and the PLO resumed Tuesday in Cairo. The resumption had been delayed a day so that Rabin, upon his return from his trip to the United States and Canada, could meet with the Israeli negotiators and give them new instructions.
SEVERAL OUTSTANDING DIFFERENCES
The talks reopened the same day Foreign Minister Shimon Peres arrived in Athens amid speculation he would meet with Yasser Arafat, who was scheduled to arrive the following day.
The PLO reportedly has requested a high-level meeting to resolve disagreements over security arrangements, but Israeli officials insisted no such meeting was on the foreign minister’s schedule.
Meanwhile, the chief Israeli negotiator in Cairo, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak, observed there are differences that remain to be worked out in Cairo.
These include how the Palestinian and Israeli police forces will coordinate their activities to apprehend terrorists, and the type and frequency of Israeli military patrols around Jewish settlements.
There is also disagreement over Israel’s insistence on controlling all border crossings and on the Palestinians’ insistence that thousands more prisoners be released before any agreement is signed.
Also yet to be determined are the dimensions of the autonomous area surrounding Jericho.
Another set of talks opened the same day in the Sinai town of El Arish. They will focus on the civilian transfer of authority to the Palestinians and are expected to be much smoother than the security talks.
In the Gaza Strip on Monday and Tuesday, PLO military officers toured with local dignitaries in what was the first step toward the gradual deployment of a Palestinian police force.
The PLO says it is moving units of its Palestine Liberation Army from Yemen, Tunisia and other Arab states to Egypt to undergo training for their role as police.