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Israel Begins Direct Negotiations with Arab States and Palestinians

November 4, 1991
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The Middle East peace conference has confounded pessimists on both sides by remaining stubbornly alive after last week’s ceremonial plenary session ended with a volley of vituperative exchanges between Israel and its Arab partners.

Up till the last minute Sunday, there was doubt that the conference would make it to its second phase: direct, bilateral talks Israel would hold separately with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Fears were heightened when the Syrian and Lebanese delegations did not show up for scheduled morning sessions with the Israelis. But the Israeli-Lebanese talks finally got off the ground early Sunday evening, and Israel’s talks with Syria got under way around 10 p.m. local time.

The first round of talks between Israel and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation went forward without a hitch, beginning in the morning and concluding around 7 p.m. local time at the Percen Palace here.

At a noon break following the morning session, Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli delegation, said, “The atmosphere at this first meeting was good, and so were the contacts.

“We spoke about things that are usually debated at this initial stage of negotiations,” he said, refusing to elaborate.

At the end of the day, the chief Jordanian negotiator, Abdel Salam al-Majali, said the talks had been conducted in a “good, businesslike atmosphere.”

He said negotiations would proceed on two tracks, one involving Israeli-Jordanian issues and the other involving Israeli-Palestinian issues.


Rubinstein, who is secretary of the Israeli Cabinet, added that the “negotiations on the matters pertaining to the Palestinians will be conducted first, in the first phase, on an interim self-government arrangement.”

Apparently unresolved was the question of where the discussions would resume. Majali would only say that “the parties expressed their views on the possible venue of the negotiations” and that “consultations will continue in this regard.”

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, whose eight months of diplomatic spadework is credited with bringing the conference about, acknowledged Sunday that “we are still having some differences between the parties that relate to where we meet and how we meet.”

Speaking via satellite on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” program, the secretary promised that if Israel and its Arab negotiating partners became deadlocked on either procedure or substance, the United States would intervene to help.

But he would not say whether he would offer Washington as a site for the bilateral encounters if Israel and the Arabs cannot agree on where to talk.

“We are right in the middle of sensitive discussions,” Baker stressed. He said if no progress is made, the United States and Soviet Union, as co-sponsors of the conference, “reserve the right to suggest some other solution.”

But Baker, who left here Sunday night to return to Washington, ruled out appointing a special U.S. representative to the peace talks. “We cannot want peace more than the parties themselves do,” he observed.

He said the United States would serve as an “honest broker” and a “catalyst” to bridge the differences between the parties.

“We will not walk away from the process. We worked too hard to bring it to this point,” he said.


The Israeli and Palestinian-Jordanian teams had no sooner concluded their first talks Sunday evening than Israeli and Lebanese negotiators met.

Salai Meridor, head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with Lebanon, reported afterward that the talks took place in a good atmosphere and focused largely on the issue of where they would continue.

Their meeting was followed by the first Israeli-Syrian face-to-face get-together ever without the presence of mediators. It was also the first meeting of the two sides since they verbally mauled each other Friday.

The Syrians, who emerged at the outset of the conference as its most bellicose and extreme Arab participant, finally agreed to the meeting after Israel conceded that the three sets of bilateral talks with Arab delegations could take place in the same building.

Israel had wanted separate locations to bolster its position that the talks should proceed independently of each other. But it backed down in the interest of getting the talks going.

Syria also was reportedly pressured to show up at the talks by Saudi Arabia, which warned Damascus not to block the peace process.

Whatever the reason, the conference stayed on schedule. The ground rules called for the first bilateral sessions to begin four days after the plenary opening Oct. 30, and they did.

But the day began inauspiciously when the Syrian and Lebanese delegations did not show up for their morning meetings with the Israelis, which were to have been held at different locations. Syria is known to exercise political and military control over Lebanon.


Observers were aroused when the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz, an observer at the peace conference, broke his official silence.

In an interview with a Saudi reporter, the envoy said King Fahd of Saudi Arabia had “intensified his contacts with Syrian President Hafez Assad in order to promote the cause of peace.”

The prince was quoted as saying, “These contacts will have positive results.”

The Saudi ambassador also reportedly said the peace conference has already “passed many stages, while many people across the world doubted our capacity to overcome the hurdles.”

The hurdles from the very start were formidable.

Before he left Madrid on Friday, the head of

Israel’s delegation, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, loosed a fierce attack on the Syrian regime.

Looking directly at the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, Shamir said Syria merited the “dubious honor of being one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world.” He called Syria the “home of a host of terrorist organizations that spread violence and death to all manner of innocent targets.”


The Syrian minister quickly counterattacked.

Casting aside a prepared speech, he produced a photo of a wanted fugitive poster dating from the late 1940s.

It contained a photograph of 32-year-old Polish-born Yitzhak Yezernitzki, the future prime minister of Israel, who was then sought by the British authorities for terrorist activities.

Baker looked annoyed with the Syrian, and Boris Pankin, the Soviet foreign minister, who was co-chairing the session, signaled Sharaa that his time had run out.

The Syrian reportedly tried to persuade the Palestinians not to show up for their Sunday morning meeting with the Israelis but failed.

Moreover, it was learned that the moderate Arab states, notably Egypt, were infuriated by Sharaa’s personal attack on Israel’s prime minister. Most Arab delegates felt his outburst was a “mistake” that gave Israel a public relations advantage.

The head of the Palestinian delegation, Haider Abdel-Shafi, also attacked Shamir on Friday. He was resentful that the Israeli leader flew home right after his speech that morning.

Shamir’s reason was that he had to be back in Jerusalem before the Sabbath. But Abdel-Shafi pointed out that Shamir is not strictly observant and had left behind other members of the delegation who are.

There was an unscheduled two-hour suspension during which Baker tried in vain to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Syrians.

He finally had to close the first phase of the conference, the ceremonial plenary, with an acknowledgment that the venue of the bilateral talks remains unsettled.

Baker stressed that the U.S.-Soviet co-sponsors favor continuing the talks in Madrid. Israel has insisted on Middle East locales, rotating between Jerusalem and Arab capitals.


The U.S. secretary of state also said he wanted to “pay tribute” to “individuals who made essential contributions” to the peace process.

He cited, among others, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who did not come to Madrid; Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini, who heads the advisory committee to the Palestinian delegation; and Hanan Ashrawi, who acted as the delegation spokeswoman, though neither she nor Husseini are official members.

Husseini and Ashrawi, flew to Morocco on Friday night to dine with King Hassan II. They also reportedly met with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat, either in Morocco or elsewhere in North Africa.

But Israel, which has vowed to walk out of the conference if the PLO was in any way involved, dismissed the reports. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pointed out that neither Husseini nor Ashrawi belong to the Palestinian negotiating team.

Both are considered to be the team’s liaison to the PLO.

Israeli diplomats who remained in Madrid over the Sabbath kept a low profile. The Arab delegations were closeted at meetings trying apparently to come up with a common negotiating position.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Friedman and Howard Rosenberg in Washington.)

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