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Nitty-gritty negotiations will be secret

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JERUSALEM, Nov. 1 (JTA) — A series of key diplomatic appointments has injected new vigor into the slowly reawakening Middle East peace process.

Israel and United States appear to be regrouping their envoys and officials in advance of a new year in which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a final peace agreement will either sink or swim.

With final-status talks expected to begin in earnest Sunday, Israel has appointed one of its most experienced Mideast hands, Oded Eran, to lead its negotiating team.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat recently named his information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, to serve as his chief negotiator in the final-status talks.

But observers see this as a ceremonial rather than substantive appointment and expect the nitty-gritty negotiation to be controlled — whether in person or behind the scenes — by Arafat’s deputy, Abu Mazen.

In addition to the formal talks, there are also bound to be behind-the-scenes contacts and back channels to hasten matters forward if there is a breakthrough in the formal talks and to pick up the pieces if there is a breakdown.

This, after all, was the pattern established in the Oslo process, when formal negotiations were conducted in Washington while the more productive back-channel talks went on in the Norwegian capital.

Now, too, it is believed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak is ready to deploy trusted aides to maintain discreet contacts with the Palestinians.

Eran’s appointment was generally welcomed in Israeli political and diplomatic circles, and also by U.S. and Palestinian officials.

A Foreign Ministry veteran who was most recently Israel’s ambassador to Jordan, Eran has long been closely involved with peace moves and is intimately familiar with the final-status issues, which include the topics that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have long delayed confronting — Jerusalem, final borders, settlements, Palestinian statehood.

As is well known, Eran was not Barak’s first choice. That distinction was held by Gilad Sher, a private lawyer with much negotiating experience who led the Israeli side in the talks that led up to the September land-for-security agreement signed in Egypt.

The premier wanted him to stay on, but Sher was forced to resign under civil service rules that prevented him from keeping his law practice, which he wanted to do, while serving in a government position.

Jerusalem insiders say the premier will continue to make use of Sher’s services and advice, and that if there is a back channel opened up as the final- status talks progress, it is likely to be Sher who will work that channel on Barak’s behalf.

In a parallel appointment, as yet unannounced, Barak has named an old friend and rival from his army days, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, as head of Israel’s team to the still-suspended peace talks with Syria.

According to Ze’ev Schiff of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Barak has not wanted to seem too anxious to appease the Syrians and has therefore not made a public announcement of Saguy’s appointment.

In practice, however, as soon as there is some movement on the Syrian track, Saguy will be the leading figure for the Israeli side.

The Syrians have not named a chief negotiator for the talks, which they are nonetheless refusing to resume unless Israel pledges to withdraw from the Golan Heights back to the border that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

In any case, the appointment of a chief Syrian negotiator will presumably have to await the return to active work by Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who is recovering from recent open-heart surgery.

The mood of optimism in Jerusalem immediately following Barak’s election victory in May on the chances of restarting the talks with Syria has now given way to more circumspection, as Damascus and Jerusalem are still locked in both procedural and substantive wrangling.

Another interesting and not widely anticipated appointment recently announced by Barak was that of David Ivry, a former Israeli air force commander and director general of the Defense Ministry, as Israel’s ambassador to Washington.

Barak respects Ivry, who most recently served as head of Barak’s National Security Council, but is not seen as close to him.

It is therefore believed that Ivry will not serve as the main conduit between Barak and the White House in peace negotiations.

Instead, he is expected to be the linchpin in Israel’s parallel effort to ensure that any future peace treaties with the Palestinians or other Arab states be shored up by a solid and expanding defense relationship with the United States.

The function of conduit will be filled, observers say, by a recent and unexpected appointee: Martin Indyk.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held confirmation hearings last week on President Clinton’s nominations of Indyk to be ambassador to Israel and Edward Walker to take over Indyk’s current post, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Bringing the nominations one step closer to confirmation, the hearings were attended by two senators who said there was no opposition to the appointments. If the two are confirmed, they would swap jobs.

Indyk, the first Jew to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, served in the position from April 1995 until October 1997.

According to reports in Jerusalem, Barak requested that Indyk be renamed ambassador — a request to which Clinton readily agreed.

The Australian-born Indyk has won respect in Washington and in regional capitals for his expertise in regional affairs as well as his diplomatic qualities.

While occasionally in the past there have been slurs in some Arab quarters centering on Indyk’s Jewishness, his appointment at this time seems to be welcomed in the top echelons of the Palestinian Authority, where he has close contacts.

Plainly, Barak and Clinton are casting him in a cardinal role if the peace process does indeed move to center stage.

The knowledge that he will have the president’s ear and is trusted by the Israeli premier can only help the process.

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