U.S. Still Optimistic About Resumption of Mideast Talks

While the Palestine Liberation Organization reportedly decided to postpone the visit here of an envoy to discuss ramifications of the Hebron crisis, American officials continued working this week to ensure that the Middle East peace process would not be sidetracked.

The administration has been in touch with Israeli, Palestinian, Arab American, and Jewish American leaders since the massacre Friday of Palestinian worshippers by a Jewish settler.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, said that based on conversations with Middle Eastern officials, he was optimistic that the now-suspended peace talks would resume soon.

The secretary was referring both to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, and to related negotiations between Israel and Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Following news of the massacre, President Clinton invited the Israelis and Palestinians to Washington to resume their talks on implementing their declaration of principles.

The Israelis have accepted, while the Palestinians are debating under what conditions they would come here.

The Palestinian envoy, now scheduled to arrive here by the end of this week, will reportedly carry with him PLO demands for resumption of the talks. These will include an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements and the disarming of Jewish settlers in the territories.

Christopher, appearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, said that he had spoken to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat earlier Tuesday.

“He said we need a little time, there will be some delay, but there was no indication that he would not live up to the commitment that he gave me last Friday, that if the United States would take an active role and move the negotiations here, that they would not lapse,” Christopher said.

Christopher voiced confidence in both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat.

“Prime Minister Rabin is a magnificent leader of Israel in very difficult times,” Christopher said.

Of Arafat, the secretary said that although the PLO leader has opponents, “he is the indispensable figure. He is a political leader but he is also the flag and the Star Spangled Banner all wrapped into one person.”

Christopher said that the Israelis and Palestinians had resolved about 95 percent of the issues involved in their negotiations.

“The last 5 percent sometimes is the hardest 5 percent, and I think perhaps if they return here, the United States will do what we have not done in the past, and that is be actively involved with the parties to try to see if they cannot resolve these last issues,” Christopher said.

Testifying Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the new assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Robert Pelletreau, also discussed the peace process.

“The Palestinians themselves are looking forward to resuming the negotiations, but they also tell us that they are under great pressure from Palestinians, particularly in the territories, to have a greater assurance that they will be protected, and this will create an atmosphere under which they can come back to the negotiating table,” Pelletreau said.

Pelletreau said the U.S. government had “noted positively the steps which the Israeli Cabinet has announced” to deal with the situation.

These include the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the Hebron attack and new restrictions on some extremists among the settlers.

He added that he was not sure if anyone knew whether those steps would be enough to coax the Palestinians back. “That will depend in part on the rapidity and the effectiveness of the Israeli implementation of these measures. The implementation must be seen as more than tokenism,” Pelletreau said.

Pelletreau said that the Israelis had initially detained five settlers, and that he had heard from Arab sources that number was “quite insufficient.”

He said that he thought the Israeli policy was “a rolling decision” and that the Israelis had said “that detentions and disarmaments would be considered on an individual basis. And obviously that takes some investigation and some identification of dangerous elements to be put into effect.”

In response to a question from committee chairman Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Pelletreau said the United States did not favor putting international monitors into the West Bank and Gaza at this point.

“We would look toward the question of international monitors being addressed in Israeli-Palestinian discussions and then we could address it as members of the international community,” Pelletreau said.

Pelletreau said he believed the Israelis would be willing to discuss the issue of an international presence once the talks resumed, but would not be willing to discuss it as a step toward resuming the talks.

The assistant secretary also said that the key issue of Israeli settlements – a question at the heart of the current crisis – is “deferred by agreement in the declaration of principles.”

But he added that the parties are already addressing questions relating to settlements even at this point in the talks.

Overall, though, he said that settlements “remain to be addressed in their final form as part of final-status negotiations.”

Underscoring the administration’s desire for a resumption of peace talks was Vice President Al Gore, who spoke Tuesday via “live interactive videoconference” to the Israel Forum, an international conference focusing on the peace process and related economic opportunities.

“Only through prompt agreement and rapid implementation will the hope of peaceful reconciliation be kept alive,” Gore said.

Rabin also participated in the videoconference.

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