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News Analysis: Israeli Foreign Minister Issues Warning As He Engages in Diplomacy

September 29, 1999
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Despite a new burst of energy in Middle East peace efforts, Israel’s foreign minister came to town this week with a warning for the world.

“The language of peace will have no meaning if it remains on paper alone,” Israel’s foreign minister, David Levy, said here last week during a visit coinciding with the opening of the United Nation’s General Assembly.

“Peace is not a code word. Peace must become a reality. It is not enough to talk about peace,” said Levy, who was engaged in a flurry of diplomacy, including a discussion with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and an unprecedented meeting with Arab officials from countries who do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Since his arrival in New York on Sept. 22, Levy has met with leaders from around the world — reiterating Israel’s commitment to peace with the Palestinians, as well as with Syria and Lebanon.

At the same time, Levy has used especially strong language to articulate Israel’s uncompromising stance on principles essential to its internal and external security.

Levy’s strong words contrast sharply with the message Prime Minister Ehud Barak brought to America in July. Whereas Israel’s new leader stressed at the time his hopes for peace, Levy has emphasized the obstacles.

It is not clear whether the change in tone was a reflection of the developments in the last few months, or whether Levy’s tough message was intended for those gathered at the United Nations, which continues to pursue hostile measures against the Jewish state.

In his Sept. 29 speech before the 188-member General Assembly, Levy was expected to call for an end to what he describes as “dualism,” in which nations pursue peace with Israel on one hand, while on the other engage in hostile rhetoric and intimidation against Israel.

“We would like to see this double talk cease,” he said at a Sept. 24 breakfast briefing with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa, sponsored by the New York-based Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.

Speaking to Jewish groups in the days leading up to his U.N. address, Levy offered his own explanation for the change in tone.

“Barak started out with great optimism, great enthusiasm,” Levy said last Friday afternoon at a meeting of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.

“But optimism and enthusiasm must sometimes make room for realism.”

After a long hiatus, Israel restarted stalled peace talks with Palestinians at Sharm el-Sheik on Sept. 4.

The two sides are aiming to complete a framework for final-status negotiations in February, with a full agreement to be reached in September 2000.

The United States is currently pushing for direct talks between Israel and Syria — discussions that have been on hold since 1996 when Syrian President Hafez Assad failed to condemn a series of Hamas terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Speaking Monday evening to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Levy said that he made clear to Albright in their meeting that morning the obstacles Israel sees as standing in the way of achieving the ambitious timetables envisioned for peace in the Middle East:

The Palestinians’ continued “diplomatic war against Israel.” Levy characterized Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Sept. 23 address to the U.N. General Assembly as “putting forth extremist positions which are unsuitable to direct negotiations and the spirit of peace.” During his speech, Arafat, while expressing hope that negotiations would move forward, called on U.N. members to support “the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital” and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Moreover, Levy said, the fact that a slate of yearly “anti-Israel” resolutions will again go before the General Assembly “hints to the fact that we have a different concept of what peace is.”

Arab League actions, which work against success in peace negotiations. Levy said the nations in the Arab League “continue their intimidation against Israel normalizing relations with other countries,” which his office has noticed during meetings with Arab leaders who wish to open ties with Israel. He also hinted at the threat of an Arab boycott against the Walt Disney Co., which was raised as a possible response to Arab discontent over an Israeli exhibit at the entertainment giant’s EPCOT theme park in Florida.

Multilateral peace talks being “held hostage.” He criticized Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa for suggesting that Arab countries would not resume multilateral talks on issues such as disarmament, water, environment and economic cooperation — begun in 1992 and suspended in 1996 — until Israel reopened negotiations with Syria and Lebanon.

“On these three issues, we will not give in,” Levy said, adding that he made clear to Albright that the United States must demand compliance of “the other side.”

Closer relations between “the PLO and the U.S.,” he said, obligate America to make sure the Palestinians fulfill their promises to “stop incitement against Israel in international arenas.”

Levy said Albright assured him that she would raise the issues he outlined in future meetings with Arab leaders.

She renewed that pledge, and expressed hope for talks between Israel and Syria, at a meeting with the Presidents Conference on Tuesday.

In a brief address, Albright told the umbrella organization that both sides were “treating each other with unusual trust and respect.”

The key, she said, “is to establish a basis on which to resume negotiations that neither side sees as prejudicing the negotiation.”

She pledged a continued American commitment to the process.

“If we didn’t think an agreement were possible, we would not be making the effort to bring them together,” she said.

Israeli officials have expressed hope that those talks would start in October, but disagreement exists over the starting point for negotiations.

Syria wants Israel to agree to withdraw to the pre- 1967 borders, based on its view of where negotiations left off under former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But Israel is unwilling to concede the outcome of negotiations before such talks begin.

“We do not have to engage in astrology to figure out what Syria’s view on the Golan is,” Levy said. “But only in face-to-face negotiations” can both sides clarify their positions.

Levy said that in his meeting with world diplomats, he had developed important contacts with Arab countries such as Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania.

On Sept. 24, the United States convened a meeting of “partners in peace,” a group including about a dozen Arab countries, the European Union, Russia, Japan, Canada, Norway and the Palestinian Authority — entities that wished to show their engagement in or support for the peace process.

The gathering brought Israel together with several nations that do not have formal diplomatic ties with the Jewish state: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Levy said that in his meetings, the foreign ministers “all praise Israel now, and this is good, this is important.

“But we must ask the following question: Will this last? What price will we have to pay in order to gain their sympathy?”

In his meetings and briefings over the past week, Levy outlined the four principles on which Barak’s government — any viable Israeli government, he said — would not compromise:

Jerusalem, undivided, will forever be the capital of Israel;

Israel will never return to the pre- 1967 borders;

Large settlement blocs will be remain under Israeli sovereignty; and

No foreign army will ever cross the Jordan River.

“Some have called them four negative aspects,” Levy said of the points he outlined.

“But they are the four pillars of peace from our perspective,” he said, adding that they are the minimum requirements for Israel in negotiations.

“That is our policy, it is no secret,” he said.

Meanwhile, American Jewish groups — including the AJCommittee, B’nai B’rith International, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the AJCongress and the Presidents Conference — made the rounds of diplomatic missions at the United Nations to garner increased international support for Israel and for global Jewish concerns.

One of the issues topping their agenda — and a major issue for Israel’s outgoing Ambassador Dore Gold — is obtaining membership for Israel in a regional group, a prerequisite for membership on important committees at the United Nations, including the Security Council.

Israel is the only U.N. member-state excluded from membership in any regional group.

David Harris, the executive director of the AJCommittee, said his group has been “slightly encouraged” this year by the work of the United States in helping Israel gain entry into the Western Europe and Others Group.

He said he learned from American and European sources that Albright had discussed the issue with the European Union last week, and he has found in his own meetings with E.U. members that there was more support for the issue than last year.

Another issue that has gained international momentum is the plight of 13 Jews jailed in Iran on charges of spying for Israel and the United States.

Jewish leaders report that most of their contacts, including representatives from Muslim countries, have expressed their concern over the matter to Iranian officials.

AJCommittee meetings with more than 55 countries from around the globe also revealed a more positive view toward Israel.

“We hear a lot of good will expressed toward Prime Minister Barak and confidence that he will pursue vigorously the peace process,” Harris said.

There are indications that the “mood in the Middle East is changing — slowly, but for the better,” Harris said. He said he found “repeated indications that something is changing in Damascus,” which is reason for cautious encouragement that “the resumption of talks may not be far off.”

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