Shuttling in the New Mideast

Israel would rather Christopher hadn't come. The PLO wants him to stay. But both want cash.

AS the world's eyes turn to Israel and the Palestinians, less than a week before they are due to start putting their autonomy deal into effect, the two sides are looking for very different things from the world.

Their attitudes are symbolized by their responses to this week's visit by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is shuttling around the Middle East in a bid to get the stalled regional peace talks going again.

The Israelis would rather he were not here. The Palestinians wish he would stay forever.

Rarely has an American secretary of state arrived in Israel to less fanfare or advance comment in the press.

Under their breath, Israeli officials were wondering why he had to come. They know why, of course, and they are not too happy about it: Mr. Christopher is pressing Israel to get serious in its start-stop talks with Syria, and to take Syrian President Hafez al-Assad off the back burner.

This, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is reluctant to do. He has enough work keeping the Palestinian autonomy pot from boiling over, he says, without thinking about relinquishing the Golan Heights. Settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territories have stoked up a bloody cycle of revenge killings in recent weeks.

Secretary of State Christopher appears to be going easy on Mr. Rabin over Israel's insistence that there is no need to stick to Dec. 13 as the date when limited Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho must begin, though that was the date stipulated in the accord that the two sides signed in Washington on Sept. 13.

Rabin argues that Dec. 13 is not a holy date. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat is still insisting that it is, and he had hoped to enlist Christopher, when he met him on Dec. 6, to this position.

He was disappointed. All Christopher said after their meeting was that ``I will pass on to [Rabin] the concern that Chairman Arafat has'' about starting Israel's military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho on Dec. 13. (The PLO seeks a meeting between Arafat and Rabin, Page 4.)

Mr. Arafat had also called on Washington to intervene in the PLO's negotiations with Israel over the details of autonomy, and was counting on Christopher to lean on Rabin to encourage Israeli flexibility.

Again, he was rebuffed. ``It's quite important that no one try to impose themselves in the discussions'' between the PLO and Israel, Christopher said.

But if Israelis and Palestinians want different political approaches from the world, they do share one desire: cash.

Prime Minister Rabin took time off from overseeing the autonomy arrangement last week for a hectic tour of European capitals, where he lobbied for more generous trade treatment for Israel from the European Community.

And the Israeli prime minister made no secret of the fact that he felt such generosity was no more than a fit reward for his peacemaking efforts. At the same time, Arafat was touring Europe on a very similar mission, hustling up economic aid for the soon-to-be-autonomous occupied territories.

Both leaders got what they wanted. The world is still excited about the prospects for peace between Jews and Arabs, and foreign governments are prepared to foot at least some of the bill. But when Arafat and Rabin got home, they faced the mounting difficulties in the path of the peace talks, and spreading disillusion among their followers.

Their focus for the next few weeks will be on each other, not the outside world.

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