3 Arab nations return to table

March 19, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Syria, Lebanon and Jordan agreed yesterday to resume negotiations with Israel next month, restoring a Middle East peace process that was shattered Feb. 25 by the massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron.

In addition, high-level talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have been set to discuss ways to improve security in the Israeli-occupied territories and to restart negotiations on carrying out Palestinian self-rule in Jericho and Gaza, U.S. officials said.

The sudden moves capped three weeks of diplomacy by the United States, Egypt and other allies. The U.S. effort included the intercession of President Clinton with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez el Assad and Jordan's King Hussein.

The pieces fell into place yesterday as the United States stopped blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned the massacre and that called on Israel to disarm settlers and allow a "temporary international or foreign presence" to boost security in the territories.

Although they suspended the peace process over the massacre, neither Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, nor the leaders of Arab states wanted to end the process permanently, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Mr. Arafat, in fact, appealed to a visiting U.S. team led by Middle East coordinator Dennis B. Ross to try to get the leaders of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon back into the game and thereby make it easier for him to resume talks.

Israel has yet to announce security moves satisfactory to the Palestinians, who want the Jewish settlers disarmed and some of their settlements dismantled. The PLO also wants a visible, preferably armed "international" force to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories.

A senior State Department official said yesterday that "the substantive gap has been narrowing" between Israel and the PLO.

Concrete actions may be nailed down in the next few days to allow the PLO to formally resume talks with Israel on implementing the accord signed in September at the White House.

Mr. Clinton made clear to Mr. Rabin at a White House meeting Wednesday that improved security for the Palestinians was important to the United States.

Although the Israeli leader made no commitment to specific steps, Mr. Rabin said Thursday in Rome that Israel had a moral obligation to provide security in the territories.

Mr. Clinton, in a telephone call Thursday, asked the Syrian president to return to the peace talks. Mr. Assad then spoke to Jordan's King Hussein and to Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon.

Mr. Assad and Mr. Clinton spoke again at 12:45 p.m. yesterday. The Syrian told Mr. Clinton that his Arab partners had agreed, in light of the expected Security Council resolution condemning the Hebron massacre and likely measures to enhance security for Palestinians, that they had "a desire to move forward," a senior White House official said.

Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin also spoke by phone yesterday, apparently clearing the way for high-level meetings in coming

days. The PLO on Thursday confirmed that talks

would resume tomorrow in Cairo, but that meeting may now be in doubt.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher predicted yesterda that the decision by the Arab states to return to the talks would give a "strong impetus" to the PLO to resume negotiations on implementing self-rule.

What is commonly termed the peace process is the set of bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and surrounding Arab states on trading land for peace and security.

It also includes separate broader talks on common problems confronting states in the region, such as water shortages and the arms race.

The idea of an international force to protect the Palestinians is likely to be fleshed out in PLO-Israeli talks. Israel does not want anything more than Red Cross-style observers.

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