THE CHIEF obstacle to opening peace talks in the Middle East is not the makeup of the Palestinian delegation. It is the expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. After all, what is there to negotiate about if the Israelis just continue to take our land? How can we be expected to talk while they build? Israel's actions are very discouraging if we are to believe they are sincere about peace.
This was the message I left in Washington last week when I met during an unofficial visit with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
I thanked them for their efforts, but told them it will be very difficult for any peace process to start while Israeli bulldozers were busy constructing new settlements and enlarging existing ones. I told them that the Arab side expected to be present at the peace talks, whether from the gulf region, the Middle East or North Africa, will agree on this point.
I found that the administration understands the situation very thoroughly. It fully understands the obstacles a continued settlement drive will create for the peace process.
I believe the administration remains determined in its efforts to pursue the peace process and arrange a dialogue. As far as I am concerned, things are going in the right direction.
However, a key question is the makeup of the Palestinian delegation. This is a matter for only the Palestinians to decide.
In order for that delegation to have credibility in the eyes of all Palestinians, the decision must be made by the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Tunis. Otherwise, there cannot be meaningful negotiations.
The PLO leadership has been widely criticized for supporting Saddam Hussein in the gulf war. But if the link between the gulf war and Palestinian self-determination could not be made then, why make it now? There is no link between that war and the right of Palestinians to choose their own representatives.
The dispute between the Palestinians and Israelis can only be resolved through direct negotiations. That is we why Palestinians fully endorse the speech delivered by President George Bush to the U.S. Congress on March 6 calling for such negotiations. That is why we greatly appreciate the efforts of Secretary Baker in trying to bring all the parties, including Syria, to the conference table.
But the main conflict is between the Palestinians and the Israelis. To make any progress in resolving the core issues of this conflict, our delegation must have the credibility that can only be granted from Tunis.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has told the U.S. that it is unacceptable for any member of the Palestinian delegation to come from East Jerusalem. While it is up to the Palestinians, not the Israelis, to decide where their delegation comes from, my position is that East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, Hebron and Gaza are all occupied territories, and so a Palestinian delegation will be authorized to speak about all parts of the occupied lands -- including East Jerusalem.
To me, East Jerusalem is part and parcel of the occupied West Bank and thus must be a part of any negotiation based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which clearly spells out a territory-for-peace formula tied to the legitimacy of internationally recognized borders. Judging by his March 6 speech, President Bush sees this issue exactly as I do.
The Israelis say Jerusalem is their capital. But there is not a single foreign embassy in Jerusalem. They are all located in Tel Aviv or elsewhere in Israel. This indicates that not only Palestinians, but the whole world, does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A key issue that must be taken up at the conference table is whether a Palestinian delegation would accept some form of interim, limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza instead of immediate full statehood. The official position of the Palestinians would be presented then.
However, during various meetings in Jerusalem with Secretary Baker since March, he indicated that, in the first stage of the proposed peace process, Palestinians would get more than autonomy and less than an independent sovereign state. Then, after three years, meaningful negotiations would begin between the Palestinians and Israel to arrive at a comprehensive solution. I accept this formula.
The PLO leadership in Tunis must now find intelligent, bright people to represent the Palestinians. The focus should be on those who have the knowledge and experience to carry out the unique art of negotiation.
I personally prefer a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation because it is in the best strategic interests of the Palestinian people. The nature of Jordan's dispute with Israel is more or less the same as ours.
In the end, as I have been saying since 1974, the only hope for any of us is to ultimately form a Benelux system comprising Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel.