Mideast Hurdle Just Gets Higher

Palestinians and Israelis harden terms as they prepare for October peace talks

AS October's planned Middle East peace conference approaches, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are balking at the last stage, refusing to attend without radically contradictory promises from Washington about the outcome of negotiations.The major sticking point is the status of the holy city of Jerusalem, the same issue on which the last Mideast peace bid foundered in 1990, bringing down the Israeli coalition government. The question of who owns Jerusalem and how it should be run could still torpedo the efforts of United States Secretary of State James Baker III. US diplomats are currently studying an Israeli-drafted "memorandum of understanding" that sets out the Israeli conditions for launching peace talks, after negotiations in Jerusalem earlier this month failed to produce an agreement that Washington could sign. At the same time, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials in Tunis are finalizing a list of guarantees they want Washington to make about the nature of the conference. Palestinian spokesmen in the occupied territories have also set out their concerns to a US team here. Making the two memoranda compatible presents Mr. Baker with some apparently insurmountable obstacles, since on several points the Israelis and the Palestinians are insisting on diametrically opposed pledges from him before they will come to the peace table. "We want a statement of the Americans' position, to see whether it can be effectively translated into a conference," explains Hanan Ashrawi, one of the three Palestinians who have met with Baker on his six Middle East shuttle trips this year.

A state at the end? The Palestinians are demanding, for example, that the end result of the negotiations be the creation of a Palestinian state. "We must know where we are going if we enter these kind of talks," argues Dr. Ashrawi. The Israeli government, on the other hand, says it will not begin talks unless it is made clear that "there will not be a Palestinian state West of the Jordan River," in the words of Yosef Ahimeir, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Similarly the Palestinians are insisting that Israel freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories before peace talks about the future of those territories get underway. "There's no way that negotiations can start while settlements are continuing," says Ashrawi. "The conference cannot proceed with the background noise of bulldozers." Israeli officials, however, have repeatedly said that nothing will interrupt the settlement process, recalling that not even during the Camp David talks did former Prime Minister Menachem Begin call a halt to settlement. For the Palestinians, the issue is a key test for the United States as a sponsor of the conference. Noting that Baker has called the settlements "the single biggest obstacle to peace," Ashrawi says: "The Americans can stop the settlements if they want, and it is an issue of principle. It will show whether the Americans have credibility, whether they are serious." Israeli conditions also include a refusal to negotiate with any known member of the PLO, which the Palestinians have all but accepted, and a refusal to sit down with any Palestinian who does not live in the occupied territories. This is where the vexing question of Jerusalem arises. The Israelis would bar any Palestinian delegate from Jerusalem, because they believe it would suggest that Jerusalem's status is negotiable. But Israel bluntly refuses to discuss Jerusalem, on the grounds that the city was annexed in 1981, is now entirely under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, and is not part of the occupied territories whose future has still to be decided. That view is not shared anywhere outside Israel, and Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem remains internationally unrecognized.

Diplomatic maneuvering Using the same logic, Palestinians insist that their representatives must include a Jerusalemite, in order to symbolize that the city's status is indeed on the negotiating agenda. Palestinian leaders are understood, however, to be considering a number of ways around this problem, such as sending a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation including a Jerusalem-born Jordanian official, or sending a prominent East Jerusalemite as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation. The need for such diplomatic maneuvering angers Ashrawi. "We are thinking of ways of being creative, but there are big problems," she says, adding, "We have a constituency here" among ordinary Palestinians who she says are less willing than their leaders to make concessions. For their part, the Palestinians have wrung one concession from Baker, revealed in a little-noticed interview two weeks ago with Zacharia al-Agha, another top Palestinian negotiator, and confirmed by Ashrawi. At their most recent meeting, the Americans "emphasized that they were ready to guarantee discussion of the issue of Jerusalem" at the second stage of negotiations, envisioned as the final talks on the status of the occupied territories, Mr. Agha told the East Jerusalem daily Al-Fajr. According to Agha, Baker also promised that Washington and Moscow, due to cosponsor the conference, would issue a statement that "if there is no Palestinian representation from Jerusalem in the first stage, or if Jerusalem is not discussed in the first stage, this would not mean that the question of Jerusalem was not negotiable, or that it was tantamount to acknowledging the Israeli stance on Jerusalem." US officials in Jerusalem refused to comment on Agha's statements, saying that the content of Baker's discussions with the Palestinians was supposed to be confidential. But Mr. Ahimeir, Shamir's aide, flatly rules out any prospect of the US pledge being honored.

Jerusalem 'a solved issue' "When we are sitting at the table, anyone is able to put any issue he wants to on the table," he says. "But if the issue is Jerusalem, we will rub it out immediately. This is not part of any agenda. East Jerusalem, as all Jerusalem, is a solved issue. It is not in dispute any more, as far as we are concerned."

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