Peace Talks Resume in Washington Under a Cloud of Protective Secrecy

After four months, Israeli and Arab negotiators returned here for a new round of Middle East peace talks this week.

The talks are being conducted under a new format designed to shield participants from the media scrutiny that accompanied previous rounds of negotiations.

The latest round of talks that Israel is holding separately with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians began Monday, with meetings held at undisclosed locations here.

Previous rounds were held at the State Department and featured media “stakeouts,” where waiting reporters asked negotiators questions about the progress of the talks as the diplomats entered and left the building.

This time, there were no stakeouts, and only the heads of the various delegations were expected to participate in the talks, in contrast to previous rounds, which featured larger negotiating teams.

Separate negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians being held in the Sinai border town of Taba unexpectedly adjourned for the week on Monday, after only one day of meetings.

Israeli sources said the two sides were hoping for a breakthrough next weekend, when Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are scheduled to meet in the Swiss town of Davos. The two met last weekend in Oslo, Norway.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continued on yet another track when Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa held meetings Monday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The Egyptians have been acting as mediators between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In Washington, the decision to hold the talks in undisclosed locations was made in an effort to give all the sides room to negotiate new positions without having to disclose every step in the bargaining to the news media.

The Washington talks are “not secret, but we have felt that they would be most productive if the emphasis was on making progress and not just on making publicity,” State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly told reporters Monday.

The United States, which is serving as co-sponsor of the Middle East peace talks along with Russia, is not participating in the negotiations between Israel and its neighboring states. But U.S. officials have expressed their willingness to step in if there is a request for their assistance.

Foreign Minister Peres discussed the prospects for peace between Israel and Syria in a conference call Monday with members of the American Jewish press.

“If they will specify what is peace and normal relations, it will be an important step forward,” Peres said of the Syrians.

Following the meeting between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad last week in Geneva, attention has focused on the Israeli-Syrian track, which has been stalled for four months.

The Israelis have been waiting for the Syrians to define whether they seek merely a “cold peace” or a fuller peace that would include an exchange of ambassadors, open borders and free trade.

The Syrians, meanwhile, are waiting for the Israelis to specify their plans for withdrawing from the Golan Heights.

Administration officials and some political analysts believe the Clinton-Assad meeting represented a step forward in the Israeli-Syrian waiting game.

At a news conference after the meetings, Assad uttered the word “normal” in the context of possible future relations among Middle Eastern countries – a word trumpeted by American officials as a positive gesture on the Syrian leader’s part.

But the Americans took a more optimistic view of Assad’s comment than the Israelis, who remained skeptical.

Yet in a briefing in Jerusalem to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Rabin spoke of sings of new flexibility in Syria’s position on the nature of a peace accord with Israel.

The prime minister stressed, however, that Syria had not budged from its demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

During Monday’s conference call, Peres said he did not think the recent death of Assad’s eldest son, Bassel – whom Assad was apparently grooming to take his place one day – would affect the talks in Washington.

“It is not connected in any way with the negotiations,” he said of Bassel Assad’s death.

The foreign minister also said he believed the Israeli people would support their government’s policies in a referendum concerning a possible Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Rabin announced last week that he would hold a public referendum before embarking on any “major” withdrawal from the Golan.

Although the spotlight here in Washington seemed to be on the Israeli-Syrian track, Israeli negotiators were also meeting here with their Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian counterparts.

On the Jordanian negotiating track, regarded by many as less problematic than either the Syrian or Palestinian track, Peres said there were no “real obstacles to arrive at a full agreement and a full peace.”

The Israeli and Palestinian delegation heads, meanwhile, are not duplicating the work already under discussion by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Taba.

Peres explained Monday that the Taba talks deal specifically with translating September’s declaration of principles singed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization “into a full agreement.”

The talks in Washington are dealing with other issues, such as the nature of future Palestinian elections and the structure of the Palestinian elected body, Peres said.

In Taba on Monday, the Israeli-PLO negotiations focused exclusively on issues of telecommunications and media.

The director-general of Israel’s Communications Ministry, Shalom Wax, led Israeli officials in detailed and technical discussions with the Palestinians on the creation of Palestinian radio and television facilities.

The negotiators at Taba avoided discussing security issues – apparently because both sides were aware that the meeting last weekend in Oslo between Arafat and Peres, while registering significant progress, had not yet achieved the breakthroughs needed for implementation of the accord.

Among the security issues that have delayed the start of implementation, scheduled to begin Dec. 13, is the question of who will control the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and between the West Bank town of Jericho and Jordan.

In Jerusalem, Peres told reporters after meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister that he was hopeful progress could be made with Arafat.

But, he added, “don’t let’s describe things that still need to be concluded as though they were already concluded.”

In his conference call with Jewish journalists, the foreign minister said he had engaged in a “down-earth talk” with Arafat in Oslo.

The two were at the funeral of the late Norwegian foreign minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, who helped broker the Israeli-PLO self-rule accord.

They will meet again Saturday night in Davos, Switzerland, where regional and world leaders will be attending an economic conference.

Before then, their aides will meet to draw up a paper setting out the points of agreement and dispute that emerged from the meetings in Oslo last weekend.

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