Burst of Mideast Diplomacy Shows Support for Talks

EVEN though the ninth round of Middle East peace talks - once planned for next week - has now been postponed for at least two months, a new flurry of diplomatic activity both in the region and in Washington has shown how anxious all the parties are to keep the negotiations alive.

Visitors to Washington this week, arriving for their first meetings with officials from the Clinton administration, included Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, key figures from the Israeli negotiating teams, and the spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, Hanan Ashrawi.

Meanwhile, in a burst of regional shuttle diplomacy, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud has been in Damascus and Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a lightning trip to Damascus, while Lebanese President Rafik al-Hariri also visited Damascus and Cairo.

The actions precede US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's first visit to the Middle East next week.

"One could say that even if the month of February does not see the ninth round of talks, at least it's round eight and a half," commented one Israeli official.

But the Arabs and the Israelis are not talking about the same issues with their interlocutors.

The Arabs' prime concern is with the 415 Palestinians expelled by Israel on Dec. 17 accused of being members of the Islamic resistance movement known as Hamas. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is demanding their return before any resumption of the peace talks.

The Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians insist that the United States-brokered Israeli offer to bring 101 of the expellees back immediately and the rest by the end of the year is not enough. They are demanding implementation of United Nations Resolution 799, which calls for all the expelled men to be returned immediately.

Accepting the US-Israeli deal "would be very dangerous," argues Ghassan al-Khattib, a member of the Palestinian delegation. "If we agree to find ways around one Security Council resolution, we will not be able to force others to commit themselves to resolutions on other issues," such as UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have been ignoring the issue of the expulsions in their talks with US officials, and are looking forward to the next talks.

"In the final analysis, the deportations question will be resolved one way or another, and the negotiations will resume," said Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians, on his return from Washington yesterday. "We will have to see what we are dealing with ... issues of land, water, authority, and legal structures" under the planned interim period of Palestinian autonomy.

"We assume the deportation question is practically off the agenda, and that there will not be any need to pick that up," added Foreign Ministry spokesman Evyatar Manor before Mr. Peres's departure for the US yesterday.

Israeli officials were secretive about any new ideas Peres and Mr. Rubinstein might be offering, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week that he hoped the four-month hiatus in the peace talks might provide a chance to rethink some of the issues.

While Rubinstein and his colleagues were able to outline their vision of Palestinian autonomy to the new US administration, Palestinian spokeswoman Ms. Ashrawi was still trying to convince Washington officialdom that more must be done for the expellees before the Palestinians can agree to continue the peace talks.

ASHRAWI also was urging the new administration to renew the dialogue between the United States and the PLO, which Washington initiated and then broke off three years ago. She may yet win sympathy for the Palestinians' demand that the US, as a cosponsor with Russia of the peace process that began 15 months ago, take a more active role in the negotiations.

Participants in the negotiations say US officials were beginning to raise their profile during the most recent stages of the talks at the end of last year, but that their influence was lessened after President Bush's election defeat in November. Many of Mr. Bush's Middle East policymakers are still in place, and may play a role under the new administration.

All this may be moot, however, if no way out of the deportees crisis is found, and Mr. Christopher is clearly eager to have the issue off the agenda before he arrives in the region on Feb. 17.

With Saudi Arabia the major source of funds for Hamas, and Syria also influential with the movement's leadership, while Egypt is working closely with the PLO, Palestinian sources here speculate that the diplomatic activity among the three countries might break the impasse.

If they fail, and as the new April date for a resumption of the peace talks nears, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan will be faced with an awkward decision over whether to pursue peace with Israel or stand by the Palestinians in solidarity and boycott future negotiations.

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