Mideast Peace Talks Avert a Walkout

Delegates persist despite heated disputes

THE third round of Arab-Israeli peace talks concluded here this week without any forward movement on the negotiating front. But participants and observers suggest that what is significant is that, despite the wide gulf between the two sides and their positions - and heated exchanges behind closed doors over the past two weeks - both will apparently remain engaged in the process.

United States Secretary of State James Baker III, say Arab and American analysts, succeeded in preventing a walkout by any party, even at the most heated moments when some Arab delegates said they felt the discussions were becoming futile. The US did not intervene in the meetings, but Mr. Baker and his aides made it clear that Washington would not take a more active role unless there was a commitment to continued communication.

While Israel, seeking to secure a $10 billion loan guarantee from the US to settle Jewish immigrants, has indicated throughout that it will remain engaged, some Arab delegations have seen support for the talks erode at home as they have failed to gain a halt to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories or even to win Israeli acknowledgment that the territories are "occupied."

Indeed, at the heart of the dispute has been United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which was supposed to be an accepted basis upon which the talks would proceed.

"The Israelis do not want to acknowledge the principle of the withdrawal.... They do not even designate the territories as occupied and refer to them as disputed territories, in clear violation of 242," said Jordanian spokesman Marwan Mouasher.

The Israelis counter that Resolution 242 is open to interpretation and does not necessarily imply a total withdrawal from the territories. These conceptual differences turned into acrimonious exchanges behind closed doors, Arab and Israeli sources say.

Other differences include:

* In the Palestinian-Israeli talks, the term used to describe the West Bank and Gaza was hotly disputed. Israel refers to the territories as Judea and Samaria, in allusion to its Biblical claim to the land, while the Palestinians talk about occupied Palestinian territories.

* In the Jordanian-Israeli talks, Israel views the conflict in bilateral terms, raising the issues of secure boundaries, aviation and maritime rights, while Jordan insists on linking its position to Israel ending its occupation and recognizing Palestinian rights.

* In the Israeli-Syrian talks, the Israeli delegation cited anti-Israeli broadcasts by Damascus Radio during the 1967 and 1973 wars as proof that Syria had no intention of making peace. The Israelis also raised the Jewish state's responsibility for the welfare of the 30,000 Jews in Syria. But the main difference was over Syria's insistence on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Israel's demand that Syria commit itself to a peace treaty and secure boundaries.

* In the Lebanese-Israeli talks, Israel asked for a Syrian withdrawal, and an end to the presence of "terrorist organizations." The Lebanese offered to accommodate "Israeli security concerns," in return for an Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon.

As expected, the most sensitive exchanges were between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations. Twice their bilateral talks appeared headed for collapse: first, when Israel presented a proposal for interim self rule for "Palestinian Arabs in the territories," which stressed that Israel would remain the "source of authority" during the transitional period; and second, when Palestinians responded with a proposal calling for Palestinian elections by September for a legislative assembly that would be the "so urce of a democratic authority," as Israeli responsibilities were transferred to the Palestinians.

But despite these differences, the talks did not collapse, and the Palestinians have, in effect, dropped their precondition for engaging in negotiations of a halt to Israeli settlements.

Arab delegations must now decide whether to freeze the talks until after Israeli elections in June, because little progress is likely to be made during an election campaign.

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