Israel again demands a delay in peace talks Date will remain Dec. 4, U.S. says

December 02, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel's government stayed on a collision course yesterday with the United States by repeating the demand for a delay in Middle East peace talks scheduled to open Wednesday in Washington.

While last-minute solutions remained possible, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not hint at a compromise in the dispute over when the talks are to begin, or their format. Members of his cabinet instead accused the United States of failing to show proper respect for Israel and of favoring the Arab side in making arrangements.

"We have made our decision and we are sticking to it," Mr. Shamir was quoted as telling the meeting.

His spokesman, Ehud Gol, suggested there was room for compromise, but put the onus on the United States to break the deadlock.

"We are still awaiting more clarifications from the United States. As it stands now, there is no change in the decision -- the date is the 9th," he told Reuters.

In Washington, a U.S. official said: "If the Israelis show up, all well and good. But we can't force them to come here if they don't want to."

The continuing argument between Mr. Shamir and the Bush administration is in part a genuine difference of opinion about how best to conduct the next round of talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Mr. Shamir wanted future sessions to be held in the Middle East or nearby. When the Arab parties rejected that proposal, the United States suggested Washington.

The argument has become part temper tantrum and part soap opera, a drama that has taken on a worrying life of its own. The State Department announced Dec. 4 as the starting date; Israel asked for a delay until Dec. 9. The main actors since have sounded determined to test the limits of how long allies can argue without damaging their alliance.

Mr. Shamir suggested several times at the end of last week that he was looking for a compromise, and asked for U.S. guarantees that other procedural issues would be decided in Israel's favor. According to Israeli accounts, his request was rejected.

Mr. Shamir was left with the choice of risking embarrassment by backing down, or risking the embarrassment of having the senior Israeli representatives absent from the scheduled opening of the talks. Judging by the public comments of his ministers, he has chosen for now to keep the Israeli delegation away from talks until Dec. 9.

President Bush said Friday he planned to go ahead with talks on the appointed date, with or without Israel.

Mr. Shamir said Friday he might send a low-level advance team to Washington in time for the opening if "someone" -- apparently the United States -- proposed the idea.

Foreign Minister David Levy, who has had rocky relations with Mr. Shamir, was reported by State Radio to have warned his colleagues yesterday that they were making decisions out of anger, and that Israel's image would suffer. But other ministers sounded as if they were competing to determine who could sound most critical of the United States.

A minister of the extreme right said the United States was treating Israel as badly as it treated American Indians. A second minister of the extreme right, Yuval Ne'eman, said he opposed the peace talks in any case, and that the dispute over dates was sufficient reason for Israel to abandon the process.

"I see this as a first rebellion against American coercion," said Mr. Ne'eman, minister of science. "I hope we will progress further in this way."

Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and a delegation of Palestinians have pledged to be present for Wednesday's opening meeting. Syria and the Palestinians announced their intention only after Israel turned down the American invitation, giving the Arabs an opportunity to cast Israel as the main obstacle to peace.

Meanwhile, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat said yesterday that the talks should not be moved to the Middle East unless all parties agree, the Associated Press reported. He spoke to reporters in Cairo after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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