Peres in U.S. to lay groundwork for talks


WASHINGTON, May 3 (JTA) — As the pace of diplomatic activity increases in the Middle East, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been making the rounds of American officialdom to lay the groundwork for future peace negotiations.

Peres had an “upbeat” meeting with President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, an Israeli official in Washington said.

The leaders discussed the role the United States should play in any future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, while emphasizing that talks should not resume until violence is quelled, according to the Israeli official.

“America will play an important role in providing auspices for security deliberations between Israel and the Palestinians,” the official said. “They will not be at the table as a negotiator, but they will be a facilitator.”

After the meeting, Peres said the Bush administration would “work for the end of terror.”

“The United States started already to bring together the commanders of the two sides and try to introduce a real cease-fire, not a theoretic one,” Peres said at the White House.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president does not think the United States should force the two sides to the negotiating table.

Peres, whose Thursday meetings completed a four-day trip to New York and Washington, “leaves knowing full well this administration is actively engaged at, first and foremost, trying to break the cycle of terrorism that grips that part of the world,” President Bush said.

On Wednesday, Peres met with Secretary of State Colin Powell and World Bank officials. Earlier in the week, he spoke to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about Israeli concerns for security along its border with Lebanon and addressed a function of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee in New York.

After meeting with Peres, Powell said Wednesday that Israeli-Palestinian violence needs to decrease, and pledged American support for future peace negotiations.

“This is not the time to do anything but work on getting the violence down, and that is the primary goal of American policy at this moment,” Powell said.

Israel has come under pressure to completely cease construction in its West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements in order to win a cease-fire from the Palestinians. The government has agreed not to build any new settlements, but Peres defended Israel’s right to expand existing settlements according to the “natural growth” of the population.

Throughout his media tour, Peres has repeated his key points.

“Everything that was agreed should be implemented; things that were not agreed should be negotiated,” he reiterated in several speeches. His meaning is that Israel would honor signed agreements with the Palestinians — such as the Hebron accord of 1996 or the 1998 Wye accord — but would not necessarily renew past offers of concessions that the Palestinians rejected.

In addition, Peres said, Israel would demand that the Palestinians uphold their end of the signed deals.

“I think we have to learn from our own mistakes,” he said after his meeting with Powell. “Previously, we put too much attention to the print and too little attention to the deeds. This time, we have to emphasize the implementation, not just the definition of words.”

The purpose of Peres’ trip was to gauge U.S. reaction to an Egyptian-Jordanian plan, drafted with Palestinian input, to end seven months of Israeli-Palestinian violence and return to the negotiating table.

Israel objects to several parts of the plan, such as the call for a settlement freeze and the fact that specific steps to defuse the situation are not demanded of the Palestinian Authority, as they are of Israel.

Peres said it is now Israel’s turn to present its input, but the Palestinians insist the proposal must not be altered.

The Israeli official said Thursday that the White House agrees that the Egyptian-Jordanian plan can not be the basis for peace talks because it seeks to hold Israel to concessions discussed — but never agreed upon — in previous rounds of negotiations, and does not detail Palestinian confidence-building measures.

If Israel does agree to some form of the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, peace talks would resume after a cease-fire holds for a still-to-be determined time period.

In the meantime, Peres outlined a host of steps that Israel is taking unilaterally to improve Palestinians’ living conditions, including easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods and allowing up to 20,000 more Palestinians to work in Israel. In addition, he said, it has presented plans to build a water pipeline to Hebron and resolve a sewage crisis in Nablus, two cities in the West Bank.

However, Peres warned that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is playing with fire by allowing numerous armed groups to operate in Palestinian territory.

“Any country that has more than one armed force doesn’t have one country,” Peres said. The Palestinians “don’t stand a chance to run their own affairs unless there will be one armed force. So we tell Arafat he has to take control.”

Peres said that if Arafat’s own security forces are participating in terror attacks it must be without Arafat’s knowledge — though many Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, disagree.

Since the violence began last September, Israel has withheld millions of dollars in tax revenue it collects for the Palestinian Authority. Peres said Wednesday that “as long as Palestinian policemen, who are on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority, are participating in shooting and bombing, it will be unaccepted by us to supply them with the necessary money to do so.”

Whether or not Arafat has complete control of the various Palestinian factions, there are certain steps he can take immediately to improve the situation, Peres said. They include taking a firm stand against violence, disciplining those forces on the Palestinian Authority payroll and having P.A. security forces work to stop terror attempts.

However, another visiting Israeli official — Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, of Peres’ own Labor Party — took a more cautious tone.

Speaking Wednesday to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York, Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, predicted the violence would continue for at least several more months.

“As long as Arafat refuses to abandon” violent “tactics, I don’t see how the present conflict can be ended,” Sneh said.

Peres hinted that the root of the problem is the fact that the Palestinians do not have an independent state. That was the likely outcome of the Oslo peace process — until it unraveled in the last seven months of violence.

“It’s not that Oslo is dead,” Peres said Tuesday, “but that Oslo was not completed.”

(JTA Managing Editor Michael S. Arnold and Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan contributed to this report.)

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