THE Middle East peace conference dealing with regional issues opened here on Jan. 28 without the Palestinians, who refused to withdraw delegation members unacceptable to Israel.
Welcoming the 20 delegations that did come to Moscow's ornate Hall of Unions and avoiding mention of the Palestinians or the Syrians and Lebanese, who also stayed away, United States Secretary of State James Baker III said the multilateral conference sent "a powerful signal that all parties are unequivocally committed to peace and reconciliation."
He acknowledged, however, that since the US-led peace process began in Madrid, progress had been painfully slow. "We are not running, and there are those who would say we are not even walking," he said. "But we are moving, and that is key."
The Moscow meeting, he added, would set the stage for talks on "pressing human problems" in the Middle East, and "it would be tragic and irresponsible to put these problems of real and profound human need on hold while waiting for peace to come."
Some delegates, though, questioned how useful the talks could be without Palestinian participation.
"Without the presence of diaspora Palestinians, the conference cannot reach any reasonable solutions to problems of the region," Jordanian Foreign Minister Kamal Abu Jaber argued. 'Verbal assurances'
A senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) figure, meanwhile, said the Palestinians had received "verbal assurances" from the US and Russia that Palestinians from Jerusalem and the diaspora, so far excluded from the peace process, would be allowed to join in multilateral negotiations when they break into working groups on Jan. 29.
The two-day Moscow conference has been called to organize future talks on regional issues such as arms control, water resources, environmental problems, and economic development.
Practical steps to tackle such questions, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy hoped, would be "the stones paving the way to peace. They will also be the nuts and bolts of this peace once it is established."
Although the issue of Palestinian refugees had not been on the agenda, Mr. Baker deliberately added it to the list of topics for discussion, and referred prominently to "the urgent economic needs of the West Bank and Gaza." He appeared to be chiding the Palestinians for refusing to attend the talks by stressing the potential benefits of joining in.
But Palestinian delegation member Saeb Erakat said he was not impressed. "Baker has always said we have the most to gain and the most to lose from this process," he said on Jan. 28 in his Moscow hotel. "But since we joined in Madrid we have been losing at an unprecedented rate" from accelerated Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. Russia and US unmoved
The Palestinians included in their eight-person delegation five figures who do not live in the occupied territories, but could not persuade the American or Russian cosponsors of the conference to change the formula agreed for the Madrid meeting.
Under that formula, Palestinians from Jerusalem or the diaspora, with whom Israel refuses to talk, were excluded.
"But when the conference is discussing refugees, we have 3 million people living outside the territories," Mr. Erakat argued. "These people should be represented."
PLO information chief Jamil Hillal, recalling that all parties to the Madrid conference were assured the right to choose their own delegates, said that this time the Palestinians had decided to exercise that right.
"In Madrid we chose not to give any party an excuse to stop the process," he said. "But in the multilaterals there should be more realistic representation." Madrid formula
Israeli delegation spokesman Avi Shir-On said Israel stood by the Madrid formula, and "the Palestinians did not comply. It was clear in advance that the Palestinians could only participate on the basis of the Madrid formula."
However, the incident "has raised the issue of Palestinian representation, clarified our commitment to the peace process, [and] emphasized our right to choose our representatives," explained Mr. Hillal. "We hope this will pave the way for our full participation in the working groups."