Mideast effort hits snag Israelis, Palestinians resist attempt to restart negotiations

February 24, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher tried to nudge Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiation table yesterday and found the pushing hard.

He sought a way for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to retreat gracefully from vows that threaten to scuttle the Middle East peace talks. But at the end of his first full day of hopscotch diplomacy around Jerusalem, he had achieved no immediate breakthrough. He adjourned to the chorus of thousands of Israeli demonstrators who marched with torches to protest his effort to restart the talks.

"Under the present conditions, I don't think the peace talks will resume," Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said after a meeting with Mr. Christopher. "We have to do our best to change the conditions."

However, Israel told the United States that it wants to concentrate on negotiating peace with Syria, including a withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, and to leave a settlement with the Palestinians for later.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Mr. Christopher that he sees more chance of peace with the government in Damascus than with the Palestinians, Israeli officials said.

Mr. Christopher would like to be able to announce a resumption of the peace talks after his final talks today with both sides. In recognition of the difficulties, he has tried to dampen expectations for success, repeatedly describing the trip as an educational tour.

He conferred with Mr. Rabin and his top aides for nearly two hours yesterday and later huddled in the U.S. consulate with Palestinian leaders for almost as long.

It is a measure of the task ahead for Mr. Christopher that he would count as a major success just reviving the negotiations, a process that was started 16 months ago and has failed to accomplish anything of substance.

The difficulty in restarting the peace talks also shows the impact of the Israeli deportation of 415 Palestinians to southern Lebanon last December. Palestinian negotiators have balked at returning to the negotiating table until the exiles, said by Israel to be terrorist group leaders, are returned.

Leaders along Mr. Christopher's route here through six Arab states have told him they are anxious to resume the talks.

But they also have urged him to solve the problem of the deportees, Mr. Christopher has said.

That is typical of the kind of contradictory signals that Mr. Christopher is finding on this trip. All sides have engaged in cross-talk that obscures their true position:

* The Israeli government has presented Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to make conciliatory statements. He has indicated that Israel would not repeat the deportations. His ministry has been the source of leaks this week predicting Israeli "gestures," such as accelerating the review of deportation orders to return some of the Palestinians more quickly.

But Mr. Rabin, who makes the final decisions, has flatly contradicted that vow of no further deportations, and insisted there will be no further concessions toward the deportees.

* Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have said in recent days that peace talks should not be linked to the return of the deportees. They also have said the deportee issue remains an obstacle to continuing the peace talks.

* The Palestinians have said they will not return to the peace talks until the deportees return. They also have said they will accept any United Nations resolution of the dispute.

* One spokesman for the deportees said in southern Lebanon this week that they would accept a phased return by the West Bank and Gaza. Another spokesman said yesterday that none will return unless all go back together.

* The United States, too, has been sending mixed signals. Mr. Christopher promised a more activist U.S. role in the peace talks. Other sources have indicated the United States will start to limit its attention and efforts if the peace talks show no better chance of success.

Many of these statements may be the usual smoke of public diplomacy, and Mr. Christopher's job is to try to see through that smoke. Sources in Israel continue to predict that there will be an announcement on the resumption of the peace talks after his last meeting with Mr. Rabin today.

Regarding Syria, a senior Israeli defense official said the Israeli army now believes it is possible to defend the country without the Golan Heights, if a real peace with Syria can be reached.

"We'll have to . . . give it a chance and take risks, and the other side will have to take risks [and] give up a few things," he said, indicating that Israel may ask for the area to be demilitarized under multinational control.

He would not say whether Israel would be willing to withdraw from all the Syrian land it occupied in 1967. But he said a complete withdrawal was at least "theoretically possible."

Some U.S. officials were cool to the Israeli tack, because the United States has told both Israel and the Arabs that it would prefer a comprehensive peace on all fronts of their 45-year conflict.

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