Israel OKs role at peace talks Cabinet votes 16-3 despite contention

October 21, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Cabinet voted yesterday in favor of attending Mideast peace talks sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, removing the last major procedural block to the peace conference scheduled to open Oct. 30 in Madrid, Spain.

While ministers voted 16-3 to send a delegation, they did so with little enthusiasm. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir cautioned that Israel's participation did not guarantee quick progress at the talks, which are to include delegations from four Arab states as well as Palestinians.

"If there are things that are unacceptable to us, we will simply not agree to them," Mr. Shamir said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister David Levy. "The fact that we have not conceded on our positions is an achievement to be proud of."

His government again made Israel's role dependent on Israel's being satisfied with the membership of the delegation of Palestinians. Israel has insisted on indirect control of the makeup of the delegation throughout eight months of diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

In talks here last week, Mr. Baker refused to give Mr. Shamir a list of the Palestinian representatives but assured him they met all of Israel's conditions. Mr. Shamir has ruled out holding talks with Palestinians from East Jerusalem or with anyone closely linked with the Palestine Liberation Organization. There is no sign Israel will soften its stance.

Asked what would happen if Palestinians announced they represented the PLO, Mr. Shamir struck the Cabinet table with his hands and said, "We shall walk out."

Palestinian leaders plan to circumvent the restrictions by appointing a group of "advisers" in addition to a 14-person delegation. Only members of the formal delegation would participate in the talks, but the delegates presumably would be able to confer with anyone they wished.

The advisers are to be led by Faisal Husseini, an East Jerusalem resident associated with the PLO and leader of the Palestinians' discussions with Mr. Baker.

"The conference will start," Mr. Husseini said after hearing the Cabinet decision. "For the first time, we the Palestinians will have equal status with the other parties."

"The negotiators will have to enter the hall and do the negotiating," said Hanan Ashrawi, another member of the advisory team. "The advisory committee will help them."

State radio identified the head of the Palestinian delegation as Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, a prominent physician in the Gaza Strip. Dr. Shafi, 72, is head of the Red Crescent Society -- local equivalent of the Red Cross -- and was a founding member of the PLO. He has had frequent contact with senior Israeli officials.

In the Cabinet, Mr. Shamir's right-wing government faced a challenge from members warning that the peace talks were a grave danger to Israel. His party, the Likud, not only survived but emerged stronger, thanks to a pledge of support from the largest opposition group in parliament, the center-left Labor Party.

Votes against attending the peace talks came from leaders of two small parties of the extreme right and from one Likud member, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Sharon, a forceful advocate of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, has announced that he will be a candidate to replace Mr. Shamir as prime minister. His colleagues speculated that he decided against resigning from the Cabinet in order to continue using his authority to build settlements.

Another opponent of the talks, Rehamim Zeevi, said he would leave the government as soon as Israel's delegation discussed offering Palestinians limited self-rule or Israel's giving up territory. Mr. Zeevi, head of the Moledet Party, advocates expelling the 1.7 million Palestinians who are now living in the occupied territories.

Opposition also came from Yuval Neeman, leader of the Tehiya Party. Tehiya announced after the meeting that it will leave the government once the talks begin, a step that

would have no immediate effect on Mr. Shamir's ability to govern.

Even Mr. Shamir's supporters have serious misgivings about the peace conference. "There is no euphoria," said Justice Minister Dan Meridor, an adviser to the prime minister. "We must not create the illusion that peace is on our doorstep."

President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are to open the first set of talks, which are to last two to three days. As outlined by Mr. Baker, a series of direct, fact-to-face talks between Israel and the various Arab delegations will begin within four days after that.

Formal invitations have been sent by the United States and the Soviet Union to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as the delegation of Palestinians. The Palestinians are to be part of a delegation formed by Jordan.

Palestinians say they will ask for a freeze on settlements as soon as the face-to-face talks begin, a request Israel seems certain to reject.

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