Mideast Regional Talks Keep Process on Track

But substantive talks on economic, refugee issues await Israeli vote

IF the series of multilateral meetings being held around the world May 11-19 to set the framework for peace in the Middle East are not expected to delve too deeply into the issues, they do have the merit of keeping the peace process moving, say participants and observers.

Given the breadth of the regional topics under discussion, the absence of Syria and Israel from key meetings, and the proximity of Israel's elections next month, little substantive is likely to emerge from the five international seminars sponsored by the United States and Russia.

"It's a question of keeping stirring the pot, treading water until the [Israeli] elections and take it from there," a Western diplomat says.

"It is important to maintain the momentum," adds a senior Israeli official. "After June 23, regardless of what the government in Israel is, all parties will be able to enter the negotiations in rapid gear."

More than 20 countries, from within and outside the Middle East, are meeting in Washington to discuss arms control and regional security, in Brussels to talk about economic development, in Ottawa to broach the problem of refugees, in Vienna to address water disputes, and in Tokyo to tackle environmental issues.

The meetings, framed not as negotiating sessions but as introductory seminars, will set out broad lines for future talks in these fields. The sponsors hope that they will provide a regional context that will complement the bilateral negotiations currently under way between Israel and her neighbors, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.

The idea, one US official says, is to marshal the funds and experience that outside countries such as Japan and those in Europe could provide, while sending "an unequivocal signal that all parties to the process are committed to peace and reconciliation."

That signal has been somewhat blurred, however, by the refusal of Syria and its prot Lebanon to attend any of the multilateral talks. Both countries also boycotted the opening multilateral session in Moscow last January, arguing that such meetings are pointless until progress has been made in the bilateral talks.

Israel too is boycotting the seminars on economic development and refugees, because the sponsors invited exiled Palestinians, as well as residents of the occupied territories, to attend the meeting.

"This is a deviation from the agreed Madrid formula" that set the terms of reference for participation at October's conference launching the peace process, says Ehud Gol, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Israel also fears that the presence of Palestinian exiles "could give legitimacy to their call for the right of return, and that would destroy the state of Israel," Mr. Gol adds.

The Palestinians certainly intend to demand the right of return for the 3.5 million Palestinian refugees around the world, according to Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team.

"Israel can hide its head for a few months, but they cannot run away from it if they want to talk about peace," Dr. Erakat says. "This is the most sensitive and most crucial issue of the Palestinian problem."

At the Brussels meeting, the Palestinians are also setting out concrete projects they would like to launch, such as a deep water port in Gaza, as well as presenting "our vision of the economic needs of the new Palestine," in the words of Nabil Shaath, a top adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

But these meetings will offer little scope for detailed discussion of the steps to be taken in any of the fields under discussion.

"We are not at the stage of proposals," Gol says. "It is a question of throwing up more or less general ideas as an introduction to the issues. Only the next step will be more specific."

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