Palestinians retake center stage

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (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 last week’s planned Israeli-Syrian negotiations were canceled, enabling the Palestinians to retake center stage.

With no other Middle Eastern leaders in town, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had Washington to himself. On Thursday, he dined with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at her Georgetown home and then met with President Clinton in the Oval Office.

Arafat delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations at the posh St. Regis Hotel, where his entourage was accompanied by Edward Abington, the former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. The Palestinians recently hired Abington as a lobbyist to help buttress their image here as final-status talks with the Israelis continue.

On Friday morning, Arafat met with about three dozen American Jewish business people and philanthropists at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss possible projects in the Palestinian territories.

Stanley Sheinbaum, a longtime Middle East peace activist who met with Arafat, would not go into details of the meeting beyond saying nothing was “conclusive” and that the meeting was “respectful on both sides.”

While Arafat publicly endorsed peace talks on the Syrian front, he and other top officials maintained that the Palestinian track, not the Syrian track, is the key to Middle East peace and that the two should not be played against each other.

“I would like to really say here, so that the whole world would listen to me, that we understand that these negotiating tracks should be parallel and not in any way competing or conflicting,” Arafat said during his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Trying to play a competition between the tracks will really hurt reaching peace in the whole area. Everybody, I think, understands that it is the Palestinian track that is the core of the problem and is, at the same time, the key to the solution of all the peace problems in our area.”

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.”

When asked last week about Sharaa’s statement, which did not mention the Palestinian cause at all, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian’s chief negotiator, said “denying facts doesn’t mean that they don’t exist”

During their meetings Thursday, both Clinton and 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.

The meetings, according to a State Department source, were not “substantive” but more of a way to show the Palestinians that “We still love you. We haven’t forgotten about you.”

The source said the Israelis and Palestinians have been working well without much need for American intervention. An Israeli source said the sides have been holding talks on three levels — the official negotiating teams, direct talks between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a more quiet back channel.

Israel and the Palestinians are working to reach a framework agreement by Feb. 13 and a final peace deal by Sept. 13. As the sides work on the final-status issues, they are also still trying to complete an interim deal signed in Egypt in September. Arafat said Israel would withdraw from 6.1 percent of the West Bank within the next two weeks. The move was delayed by Barak after a dispute arose over which land would be handed over. It is unclear if that issue has been decided yet.

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.

The 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 a speech last week at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine 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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