As Syria balks at direct talks with Israel, other Arabs push ahead

November 03, 1991|By New York Times News Service

MADRID, Spain -- Syria continued to balk yesterday at direct talks with Israel today, but the joint Jordanian and Palestinian delegation went ahead with plans to attend a face-to-face meeting with the Israelis and joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in pressing Syria to do likewise.

"We will go even if Syria doesn't," said a spokesman for the joint delegation.

Syrian delegates said they might wait two or three days before talking to Israel, and an official of the Lebanese contingent said that it would follow Syria's lead, as Lebanon usually does in foreign policy matters.

But some other prominent Arabs, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, predicted that the Syrians would come around more quickly, even though the leader of the Syrian delegation, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, returned to Damascus last night.

The original plan had been to follow the three-day conference in the Royal Palace in Madrid, which ended Friday, with three closed meetings in Madrid today between delegations from Israel and from its Arab neighbors -- the Israelis with the Jordanian-Palestinian group, with the Syrians and with the Lebanese.

Those meetings would deal only with arrangements for the substantive negotiations to follow, but the arrangements themselves have become the subject of a sharp dispute.

The Arab contingents are united in favoring Madrid as the location of the meetings, but the Israelis are holding out for sites in the Middle East, including both Israeli and Arab cities.

After a day of informal meetings among the Arabs, with the Israeli delegates in seclusion because of the Sabbath, it appeared that a compromise site was most likely.

Cairo, an early favorite, was ruled out, and the delegates discussed Cyprus, Washington and the Greek island of Rhodes.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington would be acceptable to the Bush administration. The Associated Press reported from Tunis, the Tunisian capital, that Mahmoud Abbas, a top Palestine Liberation Organization official, also described Washington as an acceptable site.

Although the impasse over the site for the follow-up meetings had the theoretical capacity to derail the entire peace process, which took eight months to get started, senior diplomats of several countries said they did not expect that to happen, partly because no country, not even Syria, wanted to be subject to international opprobrium as the villain and partly because they sensed that a majority of Arab leaders wanted to press ahead.

The Israelis and the Palestinians, in particular, seemed eager to put the heated exchanges of the last few days behind them, resolve the site issue and start serious bargaining.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said the Israeli-Palestinian talks would start at 10 a.m. today. Syria and Lebanon would join in then or in "a very few days," he said.

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