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Peace train switches tracks again

WASHINGTON, April 2 (JTA) — If at first you don’t succeed, try, try to change the subject.

And so, in the up-and-down world of the Middle East peace process, the focus is about to shift again.

After last week’s meeting in Geneva between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad produced disappointment instead of a dramatic step forward, attention is returning to the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, which are slated to begin their second stage later this week.

These talks have been hidden from the media and public, so their status is largely unknown. Officials continually refer to the discussions as “brainstorming” sessions rather than negotiations with clear-cut goals.

But the clock is ticking on a May deadline for a framework of a final agreement on issues like water rights, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

The United States will be eager to see tangible results from the talks, which are scheduled to resume Thursday at Bolling Air Force base near Washington.

But another key player, Egypt, will keep a close eye on Washington.

Egypt’s role in the peace process has been significant at times, especially during the delicate later stages of negotiations, said Joel Singer, one of the negotiators of the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak provides Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat with a level of comfort, Singer said, if he shows that Egypt supports the Palestinian side.

Some complain that Egypt is insincere in its role as peace facilitator because it maintains a cold peace with Israel. Indeed, cynical observers can point to Mubarak’s latest overtures just as he was visiting the United States, when he requested changes to Egypt’s foreign aid package.

Egypt has asked, as it has in previous years, that its $2.2 billion annual U.S. aid be delivered at the start of each fiscal year so that the aid could increase with the interest it earns.

The White House said it supports Egypt’s request and is consulting with Congress.

Mubarak met Wednesday with the U.S. House International Relations Committee to discuss aid and other issues. Several committee members voiced their concern about anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press.

Last week, 25 House members wrote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to complain about two state-owned newspapers, Al-Gomhuriya and Al-Akhbar, that dismissed World War II crematoria as a joke and said Israel has a “clear Nazi basis and carries out a policy of ethnic cleansing.”

This kind of anti-Semitism, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) said, sets back the peace process.

“As one of the nations at peace with Israel, Egypt’s government has an obligation to foment reconciliation, not divisiveness,” he said.

It does not seem likely that the anti-Semitic remarks in the press will be a barrier to relations between the United States and Egypt. Some members of Congress are amenable to the early disbursement of foreign aid money, said a House staffer, and may even use the change as a signal that the United States is pleased with Egypt’s role in the peace process.

But an Egyptian source in Washington said Egyptian involvement in the peace process has never been tied to aid. Each time talks have stalled, Mubarak has stepped in of his own accord because peace is in Egypt’s interest, the source said.

Egypt is encouraging both sides now to go beyond the brainstorming phase and enter into substantive negotiations.

In the meantime, while the Syrian track is shifted to the back burner it is not being abandoned.

The United States says that Israeli-Syrian negotiations are at a difficult stage, but that they have not failed. But the State Department quashed rumors of American shuttle diplomacy to jumpstart the talks.

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh took a hard line and said that Assad has no genuine interest in achieving peace with Israel.

“It’s now very clear that Assad is not interested in agreement, he’s interested in dictating his term to Israel,” said Sneh. “It can’t work this way.”

Clinton has called on Syria to come up with new proposals, while Syria has called on Israel and the United States to take the next step.

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