Palestinians retake center stage

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 (JTA) — With the United States devoting much energy in recent weeks to Israeli-Syrian peace talks, the Palestinians are trying to make sure they are not left out in the cold.

Their effort was helped when this week’s planned Israeli-Syrian negotiations were canceled, enabling the Palestinians to retake center stage.

After meeting with President Clinton on Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat publicly endorsed peace talks on the Syrian front.

But his top negotiator a day earlier, while also welcoming the Syrian talks, maintained that the Palestinian track, not the Syrian track, is the key to Middle East peace.

“The termination of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot and will not be attained without a solution to the Palestinian question from all of its aspects,” Saeb Erekat said Wednesday at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.

The Palestinians have even hired Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, as a lobbyist to help buttress their image here as final-status talks with the Israelis continue.

“We’re not here to damage anyone’s interests,” Erekat said “We’re not here to accuse anyone of anything as far as our public relations efforts are concerned. What we’re trying to do now is introduce ourselves the way we are.”

The Syrians appear to have a different opinion on what is key to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

In his Dec. 15 speech at the White House marking the initial resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said a deal between Israel and Syria “is the only peace that shall open new horizons for totally new relations between people of the region.”

Erekat rejected Sharaa’s statement, saying that “denying facts doesn’t mean that they don’t exist” and warned any of the parties from trying to play the Syrian and Palestinian tracks off one another.

“We are parallel tracks and not competitive tracks,” he said. “The moment any side decides to play a track against another it will be a major setback toward progress in the peace process.”

During their meetings Thursday, both Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought to reassure the Palestinians.

“The resolution of the issues between Palestinians and Israelis is at the core of the comprehensive effort that we all want to make for peace throughout the Middle East, and we have to work through them,” Clinton said with Arafat at his side at an Oval Office photo-op.

Israel and the Palestinians are working to reach a framework agreement by Feb. 13 and a final peace deal by Sept. 13.

For the Israelis, the jockeying by the Palestinians and Syrians could serve to strengthen their hand in the negotiations with both.

Joel Singer, who was a key architect of the Oslo accords with the Palestinians and also negotiated with the Syrians during the earlier round of talks, compared the Palestinian-Syrian rivalry to that of competition between businesses.

“If commercial firms are competing, prices go down,” said Singer, a Washington attorney. “It’s good for the customer,” meaning Israel.

One Israeli source said that it appears that the Palestinians “don’t want to miss the train” and both sides have agreed to conduct intensive negotiations when Arafat returns from Washington.

Erekat said during his speech that the negotiations could lead to an invitation from Clinton for a trilateral summit in Washington to hammer out a framework deal.

As the Israelis and Palestinians continue to grapple with the difficult final-status issues such as Jerusalem, 300 American rabbis have called for the city to be shared by both sides.

The statement, which was spearheaded by Jerome Segal, the president of the Jewish Peace Lobby and a research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center of International and Security Studies, came after a year of reaching out to 1,200 Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis.

Segal said no Orthodox rabbis were asked to sign the statement.

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