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Multilateral Talks Went Smoothly, Though No Breakthroughs Reported

May 20, 1992
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The last of five multilateral conferences on individual Middle East regional issues convened in Tokyo this week in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere.

There were no breakthroughs in the talks, which were devoted to ecology, quality of life and how the countries of the region might cooperate to improve the environment.

But there were also no hitches, which was significant since this was the first time Israelis and Arabs sat down together in public to discuss environmental problems they face in common.

In general, the multilateral talks have gone smoothly — some more than others.

The other four sets of talks took place last week. A meeting in Brussels, chaired by the European Community, dealt with regional economic development. Arms control was the subject of parallel talks held in Washington. In Ottawa, the issue was refugees, and in Vienna, the focus was on water resources.

Israel stayed away from the Brussels and Ottawa talks because non-indigenous Palestinians were allowed to attend. Syria and Lebanon boycotted all five multilateral sessions because of lack of progress in the five rounds of bilateral peace talks that Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians have held since last November.

Few observers expect much to come out of the multilateral talks until there is real progress in the bilateral phase of the peace process.


Nevertheless, some positive signs have emerged from the regional talks. In Vienna, for instance, the parties agreed to develop reliable statistics on water usage that would serve the group at its future sessions.

In Ottawa, where the Palestinians clouded the atmosphere by raising the emotionally charged issue of their “right of return” to territory now Israel, the Canadian hosts took over.

In the end, the working group agreed to compile data on the Palestinian and other refugee populations in the region, including Jews displaced from Arab lands, which would serve as raw material for future sessions.

In Tokyo, the environmental talks laid out the issues but did not get to solutions. When Dr. Uri Marinov, head of the Israeli delegation, raised some ideas with Saudi Ambassador Fawzi Abdel Majid Shubukji, the Saudi listened carefully but was non-committal. His government would study the proposals carefully before responding, the Saudi diplomat said.

Marinov and his colleagues chatted freely with Saudi and Yemeni delegates at dinner. Marinov reported that the working sessions also were friendly and that even hard-liners like Tunisia avoided ritual polemics and adopted the business-like tone set by the Japanese hosts.

Of the 36 delegations participating in the Tokyo talks from all parts of the world, only the Palestinians were vindictive. At working sessions and news briefings, they accused Israel of environmental pillage. They charged that Israel uprooted 120,000 olive trees in the administered territories and confiscated 60 percent of the arable land for its own use.

Nevertheless, Marinov’s preliminary reports indicated that a sense of purpose was quickly achieved within the working group.

He credited the thorough groundwork established by the Japanese study mission that toured the region earlier this year in preparation for the conference. It submitted a professional report explaining the ecological problems, hazards and opportunities, and stressed the need for regional cooperation to meet them.


The issues raised include untreated sewage flowing into the seas and into underground aquifers; preservation of the delicate ecology of the Red Sea, which demands cooperation among the four bordering states — Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the need to preserve desert flora and fauna; and protection of the millions of migratory birds that fly over the region every year.

The multilateral talks are part of the overall Middle East peace effort being spearheaded by the United States and Russia, which assumed responsibility from the former Soviet Union.

The multilateral phase was kicked off in January at a conference in Moscow, where the assembled countries set up five working groups to meet in separate capitals, each dealing with a specific problem.

Next week, the steering committee for the multilateral talks will meet in Lisbon to assess the accomplishments to date and plan the next round, to be held in the fall.

The steering committee is composed of the United States and Russia and senior officials from the key regional states.

The centerpiece of the peace process, though, is the bilateral phase. Five rounds of bilateral talks have been held since the process began with an opening conference in Madrid last fall. Four rounds of talks were held in Washington, and the next round is expected to take place in Rome sometime after Israel’s June 23 parliamentary elections.

Israel nevertheless is continuing to press for an early June session, arguing that its internal elections have nothing to do with the peace process inasmuch as it will be pursued by Israel whatever their outcome.

But the Arab side, especially the Palestinians, oppose a June meeting, particularly as it could enhance the image of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s hard-line Likud government on the eve of elections.

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