Talks still stalled as Christopher leaves Mideast But secretary remains hopeful

February 25, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher will leave the Middle East today without achieving a resumption of the peace talks, still stalled over Israel's deportation of Palestinians.

But Mr. Christopher said that he hoped his discussions would lead to a solution to the stalemate soon.

"A process is under way which will resolve that issue," he predicted after meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials. "We are going to be working on that problem over the next days, weeks, and I hope there will be an early resumption of the peace talks."

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not share that expectation, although Palestinian officials offered guarded support for Mr. Christopher's optimism.

"There were several ideas raised, several proposals raised, we decided are worth thinking about," said Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinians, who met with Mr. Christopher yesterday. "Let's hope we will be able to come up with something new."

At each stop of his seven-nation Middle East tour, Mr. Christopher has expressed optimism that the peace negotiations can be resumed. They have been recessed since November, snagged over Israel's deportation Dec. 17 of 415 suspected members of Palestinian terror groups.

Mr. Christopher has insisted that all Arab and Jewish participants are eager to return to the talks, but he found he was unable to overcome the issue of the deportees.

"There's a problem out there," acknowledged an official traveling with the secretary. "We're working on it."

The Palestinian delegation has balked at resuming negotiations until the deportees are returned from southern Lebanon. Other Arab countries have followed their lead.

After meeting with Mr. Christopher three times in the last two days, Mr. Rabin said little about the deportee issue. He said he believed the visit "will serve as a landmark in the relationship between the two countries and the effort to reinvigorate the peace negotiations."

He did not repeat Mr. Christopher's prediction of a quick solution. A senior Israeli official later played down the U.S. official's timetable.

"We're not talking about the next few days," said the official, who did not wish to be identified. He also dampened speculation of further moves by Israel to get the peace talks moving. "Enough has been said and done in order to enable the negotiations to resume," he said.

The new secretary of state chose the Middle East as his first overseas tour to emphasize the continued U.S. support for the peace process. Although he described his trip as a "get-acquainted" tour, he clearly hoped to be able to announce a date for the ninth session of the peace talks.

"I leave the Middle East hopeful but cognizant there still are obstacles," Mr. Christopher said.

During the trip, Mr. Christopher promised that the United States would be a more involved participant in the negotiations than it had been under President George Bush, an activism welcomed by the Palestinians. But yesterday, he chastened the Palestinians for not responding to that offer.

"I'm really talking to the Palestinians about their stake," he said. "Until the talks resume, there is no way for us to be useful in this endeavor."

He was more circumspect about his hosts here. "I'm not in the business of pressuring the Israelis to do anything," he said.

In his private meeting with the Palestinians, according to a senior U.S. official, Mr. Christopher said that the United States has no plans to resume diplomatic discussions with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He bluntly dismissed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and criticized the PLO as an organization with "'terrorist tendencies," according to the official. A majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip believe the PLO represents them, and most hold Mr. Arafat in high regard.

The United States conducted a limited diplomatic dialogue with the PLO from the beginning of 1989 to June 1990. It was suspended after Mr. Arafat refused to condemn a seaborne guerrilla raid on Israel by a PLO faction the previous month.

The gravity of the problems caused by Israel's deportation of the Palestinians in December came as a surprise to all parties of the peace talks. Israeli officials have acknowledged that they did not expect Arab countries or even the Palestinian negotiators to rally to the cause of Islamic fundamentalists who pose a threat to secular Arab governments.

But the mass exile provoked outrage among Arabs and has made the deportees an Arab cause not easily abandoned. The Palestinian negotiating team, dominated by the PLO, was forced to side with its rival, Hamas, in balking at the peace talks.

"Rabin has recruited us to work for Hamas," complained one of the delegates, Ghassan Khatib.

A recent poll of 1,190 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza found 84 percent believed the Palestinian delegation should not return to the talks without a solution to the deportee problem.

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