Talks Flounder Over Where, When

THE MADRID PEACE TALKS

MIDDLE East peace talks faltered and then stumbled forward here yesterday, as the Syrian and Lebanese delegations failed to keep a first appointment for bilateral talks with the Israelis, but subsequently indicated they would meet later in the day.A joint Jordanian-Palestinian team, however, did meet as scheduled behind closed doors with an Israeli delegation, to decide on a venue for further direct negotiations. The Syrians refused to attend a planned meeting in the morning because of a dispute over the agenda, insisting they would only start full peace talks, while the Israeli team demanded a discussion first on the location of future talks. The Lebanese team followed Syria's lead. "As the Syrian delegation came to Madrid fully empowered to participate in the conference and in the ensuing negotiations on substantive issues relating to peace, it will concentrate meetings in Madrid on these issues only," Syrian spokesman Zuheir Jenaan said in a statement. The Israelis have refused to talk about anything in Madrid except logistical arrangements for peace talks in the future, hoping to move them to the Middle East. A Lebanese spokesman said Lebanon would immediately raise the question of the week-long Israeli bombardment of South Lebanon, and would refuse to discuss other issues until the attacks stopped. There were reports yesterday that Israel was reducing them. The Israelis' insistence on moving future talks to the Middle East is seen as an effort to emphasize the distinction in their minds between last week's opening conference and the direct bilateral negotiations with each of their neighbors that they have always demanded. Holding the talks in the Middle East, and alternating them between Israel and neighboring countries, would require the Arab parties to recognize implicitly Israel's existence by visiting the Jewish state. Splitting up the talks would also impede coordination between the Arab parties. "If you put all the Arab delegations together you get the lowest common denominator, and I mean the lowest," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday, suggesting that Arab coordination leads to the adoption of the most radical positions. That misgiving appeared unfounded yesterday, after repeated consultations between Syrian delegation leader Farouk al-Sharaa and his Arab colleagues failed to reach a consensus about where and how to launch the bilateral talks. The Palestinians - who until last week had been working hardest to ensure a unified Arab negotiating position because they feared being left out as they were by the Egyptians in the Camp David accords - showed Sunday that they are ready to go it alone with the Israelis. UNWILLING to be bound by other Arab parties' reservations, they and the Jordanians accepted the opportunity to meet directly, privately, and on time with the Israeli delegation, even if discussion of their concrete demands is postponed to later negotiations. The Syrians, however, who have always insisted that the Middle East crisis should be resolved at an international conference, are unwilling to do anything that suggests their negotiations with Israel are not happening under the aegis of the conference. The argument over what should be discussed in Madrid, and where talks should continue, erupted after two days in which both Arabs and Israelis fell back from the subdued mood of the opening days of the conference into old patterns of brinkmanship, recrimination, and violence. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir set the tone in his closing remarks to the conference on Friday, accusing Syria of being "one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world." That prompted a vitriolic reply from Mr. Sharaa, who produced a "wanted" poster of Mr. Shamir issued by the British mandate authorities in Palestine, when Shamir led an underground Jewish guerrilla group. Meanwhile, as Israeli negotiators sat beside their Lebanese counterparts at the conference table, Israeli planes and artillery were pounding South Lebanon. The manner in which the venue of the bilaterals - the only stone left unturned by United States Secretary of State James Baker III in his preparations for the peace conference - quickly turned into an almost fatal stumbling block, was seen here as an indication of the problems likely to beset the talks for as long as they continue. As President Bush said in opening the conference, "these negotiations will not be smooth ... there will be disagreement and criticism, setbacks - who knows - possibly interruptions." He clearly hoped, however, that such a pattern would not be set even before the negotiations began.

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