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Israel’s Peace Dividend Extends to Tunisian Ties

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After several fits and starts, Tunisia has joined the circle of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The North African country and Israel agreed Monday to establish low-level diplomatic relations by trading interest sections.

Tel Aviv and Tunis will exchange interest sections by April 15, which are a step toward full diplomatic relations but which, on the diplomatic scale, fall a couple of steps short of an embassy.

Despite initial plans to open the offices through Belgium as a third party, Tunisian officials said Monday that they were ready to establish an independent interest section in Israel not linked to another country.

The Tunisian officials said they were making the distinction as a goodwill gesture toward Israel.

Tunisia will open an liaison office in Gaza as well.

The move comes more than a year after the two countries originally agreed to exchange interest sections. Tunisia, once the base of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had first announced its diplomatic intention in October 1994, but several disputes delayed the move.

The announcement came after a meeting here between U.S. Secretary Warren Christopher; Ehud Barak, Israel’s foreign minister; and his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Ben Yahia.

“I am pleased to announce that for the first time Israel and Tunisia will establish official facilities, called interest groups, in each other’s countries,” Christopher said Monday after hosting the first ever trilateral meeting between the United States, Israel and Tunisia.

The interest sections will “facilitate their political consultations and travel and trade between their two countries,” Christopher said.

Ben Yahia said the move to full relations would come if Israel reached accords with Syria and Lebanon.

Israel maintains full diplomatic relations with Jordan and Egypt.

Morocco and Israel established independent interest sections last year.

Israel is now negotiating with Oman and Mauritania to open similar posts.

The development with Tunisia came just as the third round of peace talks between Israel and Syria were to resume.

Barak, on his first official visit here as foreign minister, met with President Clinton to discuss the peace talks scheduled to resume Wednesday in eastern Maryland as well as last weekend’s Palestinian elections.

Clinton renewed his pledge to work toward an Israeli-Syrian accord and stressed that the United States would assist, but not pressure Israel to reach an accord.

“The timetable is entirely up to the progress of the substance of the negotiations, and that is entirely up to the parties,” Clinton told reporters before his first White House meeting with Barak.

The United States has “had some success in the last three years because we have not tried to dictate terms or anything of that kind,” Clinton said. “And if you look at the results of the last three years, that is the appropriate posture for the United States.”

As for a possible meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Syrian President Hafez Assad, Clinton said, “If it is helpful in getting them to the point where they can make a peace, obviously, that would be a good thing but like every other part of this process, ultimately that is up to them.”

Barak also met Monday with Secretary of Defense William Perry and was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security adviser, and senior members of Congress before heading New York.

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