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Palestinian Representation Issue Could Scuttle Multilateral Talks

April 22, 1992
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Disagreements over Palestinian representation have cast doubt over whether several sets of multilateral talks on Middle East regional issues will open next month, as scheduled, in various capitals.

A final effort to remove the obstacles will be made next week, when the Arab-Israeli bilateral peace talks reconvene in Washington.

But the prospects of reaching agreement are uncertain, and there is already talk of postponing the entire round of multilateral talks until after Israel’s parliamentary elections on June 23.

The United States, however, is pushing hard for an agreement and appears confident that the talks will go on as scheduled.

All parties have said they plan to show up for next week’s talks, which are supposed to be the last round of bilateral negotiations in Washington.

This was confirmed Tuesday when the U.S. State Department announced that the sixth round of bilateral talks would be held in Rome.

No date was announced, but a senior Bush administration official told reporters in Washington that would be decided at the end of the fifth round, which begins Monday.

The talks are being moved to Rome at the request of Israel, which has wanted them closer to the Middle East from the beginning.

The Israeli delegation wanted to be closer to the government in Jerusalem when decisions had to be made, and it did not want the Arabs to think that they could count on the United States to force a solution against Israel’s will.

The State Department had asked all the parties to submit a list of possible sites, and department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Tuesday that Rome was on all the lists.


As in the previous four rounds of bilateral talks, which began in Madrid last fall and moved to Washington in December, Israel will negotiate separately with Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

During the gathering, the United States will try to resolve the differences over Palestinian representation at the multilateral talks.

The rules agreed to by all parties during the months of tortuous negotiations leading up to the opening of the peace talks in Madrid stipulated that Israel would not be required to negotiate with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, with residents of East Jerusalem or anyone from the Palestinian diaspora, meaning outside of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians tried, unsuccessfully, to breach those rules at the multilateral conference that had its inaugural session in Moscow on Jan. 28 and 29.

They are continuing to try to insert people unacceptable to Israel into some of the five working groups convening during the first couple weeks of May.

Talks on arms control will take place in Washington; water resources in Vienna; environmental issues in Tokyo; economic development in Brussels; and refugees in Ottawa.

A steering committee is to convene after the five working groups conclude their round. The PLO demands an official presence on it.

The Palestinians also are protesting the U.S. position that they have no place whatsoever on the arms control committee, since the Palestinians do not constitute a state.

Israel, for its part, is balking at U.S. willingness to allow non-PLO representatives of the Palestinian diaspora to sit on the working groups on refugees and economic development.

Israel has threatened to boycott both groups if diaspora figures show up. The Palestinians reply that they will not attend the environmental and water resources talks if Israel stays away from the refugee and economic development sessions.

Finally, Israel is opposed to European representatives at the arms control meetings.


But Western diplomatic sources believe much of this dissension is posturing. They told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the Palestinians are expected to back down from their demands with respect to the steering committee and arms control group because they appear likely to achieve their main goal, which is U.S. backing for a diaspora Palestinian role on the economics and refugees panels.

Israel is not likely to relent on diaspora Palestinians, but may remove its objections to Europeans on the arms control group, sources say.

The Prime Minister’s Office has announced, meanwhile, that David Kimche, former director general of the Foreign Ministry, has been appointed head of the Israeli delegation to the refugee talks in Ottawa.

Political observers see this as another move by Shamir to tighten his grip on key areas of the peace process, to the exclusion of Foreign Minister David Levy. In fact, none of the people appointed to head Israeli delegations to the other four working groups is from the Foreign Ministry.

But Levy will get to appoint the head of Israel’s representation on the steering committee.

Attention has turned for the moment to the bilateral talks reconvening in Washington next week. But few in Israel expect any serious progress, given the uncertain political situation prevailing in Israel before the elections.

Nevertheless, government officials are discussing whether Israel should propose municipal elections in the major West Bank towns as a prelude to eventual Palestinian elections throughout the territories.

In Washington, a senior Bush administration official told reporters Tuesday that the United States would like to see more substantive progress achieved at next week’s round of talks, especially between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We feel there is enough substance in the Israel-Palestinian forum for the parties to seriously start to begin the process of narrowing their differences on what would become the interim self-government arrangement” for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the official said.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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