US Envoy to Try to Salvage Mideast Talks

But both the Palestinians and Israelis find fault in US intervention

THE American special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Dennis Ross, heads to the region July 8 in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to nudge the Israelis and Arabs to accept a United States proposal to salvage the Israeli-Arab peace talks.

Mr. Ross's mission follows the breakdown of the last two rounds of talks over interim Palestinian self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Judging by reactions of Israelis and Palestinians to Washington's most recent proposal, US intervention, which was originally initiated to push the process forward, could potentially undermine the talks.

But while the Israeli government opposes any modification to an initial US proposal of May 12, the Palestinians view that document, and a revision presented June 30, as reflecting an American endorsement of Israeli interests.

"It was hard enough to negotiate with the Israelis. Now we are practically negotiating with two parties," says one Palestinian delegate.

Ironically, it was the Palestinians, particularly spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who had been publicly and privately pressing the US to take a more active and direct role in the process. The Palestinians had thought the US would pressure Israel to abide by United Nations Security Council resolutions that formed the basis for the peace talks.

UN Resolution 242 calls for a negotiated settlement based on exchanging land for peace. Former Secretary of State James Baker III, before launching the historic Middle East peace conference in Madrid in October 1991, sent letters to the four parties assuring them that their interests would be adequately represented. Shifting stance

The Clinton administration supported those assurances, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher vowed that the US would become "a full partner" in the process. The Palestinians welcomed that pledge, but were soon disappointed.

When the ninth round of talks got underway April 27, US officials made clear that the Palestinians would have to work out the terms of the negotiations with the Israelis and should not expect Washington to apply pressure on Israel.

"Our role is that of facilitators and not arbitrators or enforcers," one well-placed State Department official explains.

Washington has long maintained that the Arabs, especially the Palestinians, should not expect it to step up any kind of pressure to force Israel to withdraw from territories it has occupied since 1967. US officials have also said that they would not sanction unilateral or international measures to address Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

At the outset of the 10th round last month, US officials told the Palestinians that Secretary Baker's letters of assurance were not enforceable.

"They told us that the letters of assurance did not constitute the terms of reference for the peace process, that the letter of invitation was the only term of reference," Dr. Ashrawi told journalists at a briefing in Washington.

The letter of invitation, written by both Washington and Moscow following Baker's initiative, were sent just before the Madrid talks opened.

The two US proposals also were instrumental in further altering or clarifying the rules of the game, depending on the two conflicting perspectives of the Palestinians and the Israelis.

In the first proposal, the US implicitly stated that the aim of the negotiations was not the implementation of Resolution 242 even though the negotiations have been based on it. "The two sides concur that the agreement reached between them on permanent status will constitute the implementation of 242 and 338," thus rendering void the original wording of 242. The latter resolution calls for the implementation of 242 through negotiations.

The second US document, floated at the end of the 10th round, proved to be more explosive: The Palestinians charged that it violated the principle of "land for peace," upon which the talks were initially based. Two approaches

The new document lays new ground for the talks that are not based on the UN resolutions, effectively stripping the Palestinians of one of the few cards they have long invoked to redress the disparity of the situation.

US officials, who have been very secretive about the document, admit that the second US draft reflects a new approach to prevent the process from reaching a dead end.

"There are two approaches to the process. The first, favored by Arabs, is to invoke international law," a US official told the Monitor. "But international law, as we know, is meaningless unless there are powers who are ready to enforce it," the official says, referring to US resistance to economic sanctions against Israel or enforcement of UN resolutions.

The second approach, which the official says is endorsed by the Israelis, is "to set aside international law and to find a workable formula." That appears to be the option preferred by the Clinton administration.

Israeli officials say the Palestinians should engage in building on what the Israelis are offering instead of wasting time on appealing to international law.

But the Palestinians say they are being asked to make concessions at the talks in return for an ambiguous and uncertain outcome.

"What do the Palestinians want?" the US official asks. "If they want to see Israeli soldiers go home, they have to be realistic and do what with they are given."

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