Israeli-Arab peace talks off to a stuttering start in Washington

December 11, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Arab and Israeli negotiators got together in the same building yesterday, but some of them couldn't make it beyond the hallway.

While Israeli sessions with Syria and with Lebanon at least broached the key issues barring peace for decades, negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation never got started.

Instead, the teams stayed in a State Department corridor while their leaders were locked in a dispute over the number of rooms they would use, an issue suffused with symbolic importance.

Palestinians, determined to be recognized as a distinct people, demanded that their talks with Israel be conducted in a separate room from the Israeli-Jordanian talks.

Israelis, seeing in the Palestinian assertion a step toward statehood, refused. Each side accused the other of reneging on agreements.

The talks thus prolonged an atmosphere of procedural wrangling that began shortly after the peace conference in Madrid, Spain, when Arabs and Israelis failed to agree on where to meet next, and continued last week with Israel's boycott of the U.S.-set date of Dec. 4 for the reopening of talks.

U.S. officials, who had drawn the antagonists to Washington, assumed a posture of studied detachment, leaving it up to the parties to settle their differences.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, disregarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, said "the United States is delighted" that negotiations had resumed.

She appeared to side with the Israeli argument, saying the "terms ofreference" for the talks had specified a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, but added: "We have said whatever the parties want to work out among themselves is their business."

Israeli-Syrian talks opened on a positive note with chief negotiator Muwaffak Allaf saying beforehand, "We are offering peace for territory occupied by Israel, offering peace for ourselves and for them." Previously, Syria had resisted the idea of contracting a formal peace with Israel.

When the talks ended at 1:30 p.m., however, little progress was reported. Syrians claimed that the Israelis tried to avoid discussing return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Israeli spokesman Benjamin Netanyahu countered, "The Syrians say, 'We want territory, period,' " and did not respond to Israel's calls for "a contractual peace."

The two sides will meet again today.

The Israeli-Lebanese session opened in what Israeli delegate Uri Lubrani called "a businesslike, cordial atmosphere" and resumed late yesterday afternoon.

In his opening statement, the Israeli delegation chief said that his country had no territorial designs over south Lebanon.

"All we seek is security for the northern part of Israel and to protectthe lives of our citizens from terrorist attacks," Yosef Hadass said.

The Israeli talks with Palestinians and Jordanians had offered the best prospect of progress, since Israel was prepared to offer concessions on self-rule, and Palestinians are desperate to improve their condition.

But after failing to agree on how to begin their talks, the three parties broke off early in the evening.

For much of the day, their delegation leaders spoke together on a hallway couch, apart from their colleagues.

"The Israelis seem to think that if we ask for a separate room that we are asking for an independent state," said Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. "It's very dampening, frankly speaking; I mean, you've built up a momentum and you think you're all set and you're ready to tackle issues, and you end up, again, grappling with procedure."

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