THE Palestinians on Wednesday rejected an invitation to attend the next round of talks in the Middle East peace process, making good on their promise to boycott the negotiations until Israel makes more concessions on its Dec. 17 deportation of 415 Palestinians.
Palestinian officials also say they turned down the invitation because their conditions for returning to the conference table - six points raised recently with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Jerusalem - have so far been ignored by the United States. Yesterday, Palestinian officials said they would also stay away from multilateral talks on Middle East issues. New assurances
The six points, which the Palestinians say were verbally approved by US officials then later rejected, included a US declaration that Israeli deportations are illegal and a new letter of assurances confirming the original basis for the peace negotiations.
Before the Madrid conference of October 1991, the beginning of the peace process, the US and the Soviet Union sent the Palestinians a letter assuring them the talks would be based on two United Nations Security Council resolutions that call on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Palestinians are also seeking guarantees that Israel escalate the return of the 396 deportees who remain stranded between Israeli and Lebanese Army lines, stop further deportations of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and stop violations of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We are still waiting for a final response from the US regarding the six points," said Saleh Raafat, a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official. "The issuance of the invitation came too soon, and unless there is a US and Israeli commitment to these six points, then we simply cannot attend the next round of talks."
But the Amman-based official said yesterday that a Palestinian delegation is expected to visit Washington soon to hold talks with State Department officials.
The issuance of the invitation to the peace talks was also seen by Palestinian officials, who were apparently hoping for further discussions before setting a date, as a way to pressure them to attend the ninth round of talks.
"The issuance of the invitations at this time, accompanied by Christopher's statements that the US was encouraged by Syria to announce the next round of talks, is a clear form of pressure on the Palestinians to attend," says Tayseer Arouri, an adviser to the Palestinian negotiators. Syria's plans
Syrian officials have already said they are willing to attend the next round of talks even if all the deportees are not returned to the territories beforehand. Lebanon has also indicated its willingness to return to the negotiations, but Jordan - which has provided an umbrella for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation - says it will not attend the talks without the Palestinians.
The Palestinians felt more pressure from Syria after the issuance of the invitations during a meeting in Damascus on Wednesday between the PLO's head of foreign affairs, Farouq Qaddoumi, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa.
According to PLO insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity, Mr. Qaddoumi failed to arrange a foreign ministers' meeting next week of the five Arab parties in the peace talks to try to get Arab support for the Palestinian position. In an apparent delaying tactic, Syria announced that such a meeting would take place after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in the last days of April.
But Palestinian officials and delegates insist that they will not be pressured to return to the negotiations unless at least some of their demands were met. Internal pressures
"We have decided to suspend our participation even if all the other Arab parties decide to go to Washington," Mr. Raafat says.
"Real peace cannot be achieved between Israel and the Arabs without ... substantive issues being resolved on the Palestinian track," he insists.
The Palestinian leadership also faces internal pressures not to attend the next round of talks. Mr. Arouri says returning to the negotiations under the current conditions would "isolate the delegation from the Palestinian people and their aspirations" and discredit the PLO leadership.
A decision to return to the talks would also split the delegation. Chief negotiator Haidar Abdel Shafi, who is apparently backed by most of the delegation members, said he would resign if the PLO leadership decided to return to the talks.
Samir Abdallah, a West Bank-based negotiator, recently argued in a Monitor interview that "Israel's intentional stalling in achieving any progress on the Palestinian track has led the Palestinian population to lose any hopes in achieving any results."
"The people's patience is running out," he said. "So it will not make much difference to them if we boycott the next round."