Israeli Cabinet votes to back talks on peace PLO official hints at flexibility on Palestinian issue

August 05, 1991|By Robert Ruby and Mark Matthews | Robert Ruby and Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondents

JERUSALEM -- By a 16-3 vote, Israel's Cabinet yesterday formally agreed to attend Mideast peace talks sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, on the condition that Palestinians form a delegation acceptable to Israel.

In Tunisia, an aide to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, showing new PLO flexibility over terms for the proposed peace conference, said he believes Palestinians will attend.

"And I don't think there will be an obstacle that is big enough that will prevent the Palestinians going," said Bassam Abu Sharif.

He said that the PLO must still designate a Palestinian delegation but hinted that the organizationwould agree to a compromise formula -- attaching a former East Jerusalem resident to the Jordanian delegation going to the peace conference.

"I think there is room for a formula that will facilitate the peace process," Mr. Sharif said. When asked about the compromise formula, he said, "That is the room I was talking about."

HTC Israel rejects participation by Palestinians from East Jerusalem or from outside the occupied territories, and it demands to know in advance who the Palestinian delegates will be. But both Jordan and Israel are understood to be supportive of the compromise formula.

The Israeli Cabinet's lopsided vote, uniting Orthodox religious parties with ministers of the right, was an endorsement of the conditional "yes" Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave last week to Secretary of State James A. Baker III. It thereby shifted pressure onto the Palestinians as the only party yet to accept the U.S.-brokered plan for peace talks, scheduled to begin in October.

Mr. Shamir has insisted that Israel's agreement to negotiate with Arab states and Palestinians would not lead to Israel's giving up territory. He has also kept the right to set many of the ground rules for who can and can not speak for the Palestinians.

"What is sure is that Israel accepts the understandings concluded with the United States," Ehud Olmert, minister of health, said after the vote. "We must wait patiently for the rest."

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the most hawkish members of the government, was the only member of Mr. Shamir's Likud bloc to vote against the prime minister. The other opposition votes came from the leaders of two extreme right-wing parties that are part of Mr. Shamir's governing coalition.

"I'm not against peace but against the way these negotiations were initiated," said Mr. Sharon, warning that the United States was wrong to trust President Hafez el Assad of Syria and to press Israel to negotiate with him.

Mr. Sharon was notable for his isolation within his party, as other Likud hawks defended the prime minister.

"This means a new era," said Tzahi Hanegbi, a frequent critic of Mr. Shamir. "The most important process is that the Arab states are beginning to understand that the conflict must be fought out at the negotiating table."

Ministers acknowledged that their choice was between accepting the U.S. invitation and being blamed for the possible collapse of the peace-making effort that Mr. Baker began immediately after the end of the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Baker has proposed a one- to two-day regional peace conference that would be followed by several sets of simultaneous, face-to-face talks. The parties represented would include Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestinians. There would also be observers from the United Nations, the Persian Gulf states and the Arab countries of North Africa.

Mr. Baker, who is on his sixth trip to the region since the war, was holding talks yesterday in Tunisia after meeting Saturday with King Hassan II of Morocco. The secretary of state is scheduled to travel today to Algeria for meetings with Algerian President Chadli Benjedid.

Mr. Sharif, the PLO aide, has been known to float "trial ballons," and so it was unclear whether his comments marked a real change in PLO thinking.

Mr. Olmert, a close adviser to Mr. Shamir, said that accepting the U.S. plan was less dangerous than rejecting it and angering the United States. If Israel turned down the prospect of talks, he said, "it could have isolated the state of Israel."

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