Israel, neighbors talk about normal relations

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Multilateral negotiations aimed at securing cooperation throughout the Middle East have convened for the first time in nearly four years.

At Tuesday’s one-day session in Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and acting Russian President Vladimir Putin told the delegates that regional cooperation could give a boost to the ongoing peace negotiations involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Syria.

But some Arab leaders made it clear before the meeting that Albright was in effect putting the cart before the horse — that Israel would first have to achieve peace treaties with the Palestinians and Syria before broad regional cooperation could be achieved.

Many Arab leaders have long suspected that the multilateral talks — which deal with such issues as economic cooperation, arms control, the environment, refugees and water — are designed solely to integrate Israel into a hostile region.

But Albright said the multilateral track is “not a favor to one party over the others,” adding that it is a “process for regional cooperation that will benefit all the people of the region.

United States and Russia co-chaired Tuesday’s gathering, which brought together officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Rich donor nations, including Japan, the European Union and other industrial states, also attended.

Syria and Lebanon boycotted the talks.

The multilateral talks were launched at the 1991 Madrid peace conference. They were suspended during the tenure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when peace moves between Israel and its Arab neighbors were largely on hold.

Israel had hoped Tuesday’s meeting would give a boost to its efforts to have normal relations with the Arab world.

Some progress was made at the meeting when a final declaration was issued announcing dates for the resumption of talks involving four working groups.

The first of those talks, focusing on water, will be held April 11-12 in Oman.

The group on economic cooperation will then meet May 8-11 in Jordan; the group on refugees, May 16-18 in Ottawa; and the committee on the environment, May 31-June 1 in Tunis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa said the fifth group, on regional arms control, could meet within a few months once an agenda was reached.

The escalation of fighting this week in Lebanon hung heavily over the Moscow meeting. The hostilities, which led to the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the second-in-command of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army, could hurt the chances for reviving the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

At Tuesday’s session, Albright appealed to Israel, Syria and Lebanon to act with restraint.

“All of the participants have committed themselves to working toward Middle East peace. They have emphasized the importance of making the negotiations work. For they understand the only solution to the conflict is a political solution,” Albright said.

The previous day, in a meeting with Albright, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy condemned the Hezbollah attack that killed the three Israeli soldiers.

He said Syria is mistaken if it believed it could achieve anything by any means other than negotiations.

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