As the Middle East parties prepare to return here for the next round of bilateral peace talks, optimistic statements coming from both Israeli and Palestinian officials are providing some hope for imminent progress.
Since the previous round of negotiations adjourned here in early July, much has happened in the Middle East, including upheaval among Palestinian delegates to the talks and fallout from fighting in southern Lebanon between Israel and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement.
But it remains to be seen whether these events will provide a boost for the slow-moving negotiations Israel is conducting separately with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.
The Clinton administration has made it clear that some sort of progress is essential before the end of 1993, now only four months away.
State Department officials, from Secretary of State Warren Christopher on down, have been jetting back and forth to the Middle East in hopes of brokering a deal that could break the talks out of their current stalemate.
Some observers have been suggesting that this type of shuttle diplomacy will take on an increasingly important role in the peace process, perhaps overshadowing the face-to-face negotiations here between the parties.
As it usually does, the State Department this week played down any hopes of a quick break- through in the negotiations. When asked Monday what the administration expected from the 11th round of talks, set to begin Aug. 30 or 31, department spokesman Mike McCurry quoted Christopher as saying that progress could only be made “inch by inch.”
“This is an ongoing dialogue that the secretary certainly expects will occupy a considerable amount of time for the balance of the year,” McCurry said.
‘VERY TOUGH CHOICES’ TO MAKE
The parties have now reached a stage in the talks where difficult issues are on the table, McCurry noted.
“The next step,” he said, is for the parties to “look back at those very tough choices that have to be made if they truly want peace and to begin to fashion some type of consensus on how those decisions can be implemented.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian track, many ideas have been floated, and, at least so far, most of them have not resulted in concrete achievements at the negotiating table.
But early this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was quoted as saying that “we are very, very near to a peace agreement on the Palestinian issue.”
And in Tunis, Palestine Liberation Organization information chief Yasir Abed-Rabbo told the Reuters news agency that “there is a possibility of major progress happening in the coming round of talks, based on certain indications.”
While it is possible that both officials were simply trying to put the best face on a very difficult situation, the tone at least was more positive than it has been for a while.
Israeli officials and other observers here say there is potential for progress in both the talks with the Palestinians and those with the Syrians.
The Palestinian delegation to the talks has had a tumultuous few weeks, consisting of battles and an eventual reconciliation with PLO leader Yasir Arafat.
At the same time, several of Arafat’s top aides have either resigned or threatened to do so, reportedly, at least in part, over issues concerning the peace process.
IS ASSAD READY FOR REAL PEACE?
It is still unclear what effect these developments will have on the upcoming round of talks on Palestinian autonomy. But Israeli officials expressed concern this week that unless the Palestinians get their “house in order,” they may not be able to make substantive decisions during the next few weeks.
Arafat reportedly was more willing than the Palestinian negotiators to postpone discussion of the touchy issue of Jerusalem’s future until after a Palestinian autonomy plan is implemented.
The Jerusalem issue hampered progress on the Palestinian track during the last round of negotiations. The Palestinian delegates said they wanted to discuss the city’s future at this stage of the talks, an idea vehemently opposed by the Israelis.
Another issue about which there has been some discussion is the concept of “early empowerment,” under which Israel would give authority over certain areas, such as education and health, to the Palestinians at an early stage.
Possibly connected to “early empowerment” are the “Gaza First” and “Jericho First” ideas. These concept, reportedly the centerpiece of a proposal drafted by Arafat, would result in early Palestinian control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.
Observers say that both the future and the specifics of these proposals are still hazy, and perhaps will not become clearer until the Israelis and Palestinians agree on a joint declaration of principles governing the framework for an interim agreement.
The State Department has been actively seeking an accord between the two sides on such a document.
Questions also hang over the Israeli-Syrian track, regarded as equally important to the talks with the Palestinians.
Some observers here, including Israeli officials, feel that Syrian President Hafez Assad may have recently come to believe that a real peace agreement with Israel, rather than just a security arrangement, is necessary.
Israeli officials credit Christopher’s recent shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Damascus, as well as other regional capitals, with providing a boost to the Syrian track.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.