Israel, Tunisia to swap representatives

October 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- In another sign that it is shaking off its role as Middle East outcast, Israel agreed with Tunisia this weekend to exchange low-level representatives as a first step toward eventual diplomatic relations.

Technically, the step was a small one. The two countries announced Saturday night at the United Nations that they would appoint economic liaison officers, who would work out of the Belgian embassies in Tunis and Tel Aviv.

The road to true diplomatic ties could still be long.

Nevertheless, the move underlined how far Israelis and Arabs have come toward reconciliation, especially in the 13 months since Israel agreed with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories.

The economic link with Tunisia is similar to one that Israel forged last month with Morocco, although it is somewhat weaker in that the Moroccans accepted an exchange of independent offices.

Still, an important new direction has been taken -- "a first-rate achievement," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel said yesterday -- with the added fillip for some Israelis that Tunis until earlier this year was headquarters for the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat.

It means that Israel now has some sort of official relations with three Arab states, all in northern Africa. The third is Egypt, the only Arab country to go so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

The arrangement with Tunisia comes on the heels of a decision by six Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, to end their blacklisting of foreign companies that trade with Israel, although their boycott of Israel itself remains intact.

Many Israelis yesterday focused fully for the first time on the partial lifting of the Arab boycott, which was announced in New York on Friday after the start here of the Jewish Sabbath.

"It shows that the Oslo agreement is working beyond the immediate region," a senior Israeli official said, referring to the self-rule accord with the Palestinians. "It's working. Things are really changing."

Officials here did not disguise their desire for domestic political gain. They hope they have strengthened their argument to Israelis that coming to terms with their immediate neighbors is a key to broad regional and international acceptance.

But while some officials insist that peace with neighboring Jordan and Syria is at the door, Israel does not seem quite ready to cross the threshold.

Today, Mr. Peres is scheduled to meet with Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan at the White House, but there is no sign of an imminent breakthrough toward a peace treaty because of continuing land and water disputes.

On the Syrian front, the two sides are now waiting for Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who is supposed to arrive next weekend for another round of shuttling between the capitals in an attempt to narrow differences.

There are few secrets about what it takes to make a deal: Israel's willingness to give up the Golan Heights and Syria's acceptance of a genuine peace. But still up in the air are critical details like the extent of the Israeli withdrawal, the amount of time it will take, the Syrian definition of peace, and future security arrangements.

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