Peres: peace process will top summit agenda

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres says that finding ways to achieve ``a comprehensive peace in the Middle East'' will be the chief topic at his summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. ``I think at the top of the agenda, from my point of view, will be how to proceed to the opening of a peace conference concerning the comprehensive peace in the Middle East and concerning the solution of the Palestinian problem,'' the prime minister said in an interview.

Entering his final six weeks in power before he trades places with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mr. Peres seems determined to go out in a flurry of diplomatic activity.

Peres's emphasis on the need for a comprehensive settlement and resolution of the Palestinian problem brings him into conflict with Mr. Shamir, who tends to stress negotiations between Israel and each of its neighboring Arab states as the best way to achieve peace. Jordan and Egypt both have said that the only way to expand the peace process is to convene a Mideast peace conference that would achieve a comprehensive settlement of the issues dividing Israel and its neighbors and resolve the Palestinian issue.

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Peres's closest aides regard the summit, tentatively set for Sept. 10 and 11 in Alexandria, Egypt, as an ideal forum for setting a standard of diplomatic initiative that Shamir, head of the nationalistic Likud bloc, will be hard-pressed to pursue after rotation on Oct. 14.

Peres said that Israel must ``introduce all the time new ideas, new opportunities'' for pursuing peace with its neighbors. He indicated he might leave the government after rotation if he feels the Likud is not pursuing negotiations aggressively with Jordan and Palestinian representatives over the fate of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip.

``I am not an official in this government,'' the prime minister said. ``It is basically a government made of two large parties. I am head of one of the two, and unless there will be a common effort in an agreed direction, there won't be a common government. We are changing jobs, we are not changing direction and we are not changing the nature of the government. If there will be a change [in the nature of the government], the government will not be able to exist.''

Peres's view of what should be tackled at the summit angers some Likud members. As rotation nears, Likud is growing increasingly concerned that Peres might make unacceptable concessions on the Palestinian issue in an 11th-hour bid to avoid rotation. Rumors have circulated here recently that President Mubarak will try hard to push Peres into acknowledging the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinians.

During his tenure as prime minister, Peres has taken pains to speak publicly on the need to address the ``aspirations of the Palestinian people''; on his resolve to refrain from imposing Israeli sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and on his adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel's withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967 as the basis for negotiations. But he also has insisted that Israel will not deal with the PLO, will not accept the creation of a Palestinian state, and will not commit -- before negotiations -- to full withdrawal from all territories.

Asked if he feels he has clearly expressed his stance on the Palestinian issue, Peres replied, ``I think my position was more clearly expressed, but I won't say it was completely expressed.'' He declined to say whether he would offer Mubarak any new ideas on who could represent the Palestinians in possible peace negotiations.

``I shall surely listen to what Mubarak has to suggest, and I will suggest things of my own,'' Peres said. ``Let's keep the negotiable issues for the negotiations. I see a danger in starting to negotiate before the negotiations, because -- first of all -- every party has its opening position and nobody is going to sacrifice it.''

Mideast peace efforts stalled in February, when Jordan's King Hussein ended a year-long effort to reach a joint negotiating stance with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. Although Israel has applauded the Jordan-PLO rift, Peres conceded in the interview that no suitable alternative Palestinian partner has been found for negotiations.

``I think there are Palestinians who can go,'' he said. ``I do believe that there are available Palestinians. If they have a real green light by the Jordanians and the Palestinians, they will go. People are here, but the green light is not, and what we need is a green light.'' He declined to name which Palestinians could represent their people, saying that to do so ``would endanger their position.''

Peres acknowledged that Jordan and Egypt differ over the likelihood of the PLO entering negotiations, with Egypt urging a reconciliation between Hussein and Arafat. But Peres insisted that ``when the chips will fall, Egypt, I believe, will take the Jordanian side: that the PLO or the leadership of the PLO is unable to negotiate.''

The prime minister repeatedly emphasized that what he has termed Israel's diplomatic offensive must continue after rotation if the government is to survive.

Israel, Peres said, can't afford two years of diplomatic dormancy -- the length of time Mr. Shamir is due to serve under the coalition guidelines set two years ago.

``You can become dormant and fall asleep, and then you will be the only one who dreams your dreams,'' the prime minister said. ``I won't accept that. I don't intend to become passive myself, and I shall carry on as the head of a party and as a person with a responsibility.''

Although he appeared fatigued, Peres spoke with pride of his accomplishments during 23 months in office. He ticked off several examples of what he called ``tangible and intangible'' achievements -- ``things that can be measured physically and things which are a matter of feelings, which nobody can measure.''

Peres listed his most significant achievement as the end of Israel's war in Lebanon. Although Israel still keeps up to 1,000 troops in a self-proclaimed security zone north of its border with Lebanon, the bulk of Israeli troops withdrew south of the border 15 months ago.

Peres also cited the nation's economic stabilization program, the freezing of the West Bank settlement program, the air-lifting of some 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Israel's decision to send its Taba border dispute with Egypt to international arbitration, and the improvement of Israel's image in the international community.

``A couple of years ago, if you had interviewed me, you would have been talking about settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza,'' the prime minister said. ``Now it is no longer talked about.''

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