Preparation for a Mideast Conference Urged : W. Europeans Move to Keep Peace Ball Rolling
America’s European allies, whose persistent pressure helped wear down the barrier that had separated Washington and the Palestine Liberation Organization, barely paused to applaud Thursday before moving to shore up what they see as a still very fragile opening to Middle East peace.
“Some steps must be taken to keep the momentum alive,” commented William Waldegrave, Britain’s minister of state responsible for the Middle East.
“Now obviously, the most hopeful step would be for the beginnings of a response from Israel,” he added. “But everyone understands the difficulties in which Israel finds herself at the moment, without a clear government and a clear policy, so that some of us may have to take other steps to keep the process on the rails for the next few weeks.”
Speaking in a British Broadcasting Corp. radio interview during a visit to Cairo, Waldegrave said that one option is to call a preparatory meeting for a full-blown Middle East peace conference. It is a possibility that “we will want to discuss with our allies and with the other permanent members of the (U.N.) Security Council in the weeks ahead,” he said.
In addition to Britain and the United States, the other permanent members of the Security Council are France, China and the Soviet Union.
In Geneva, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution Thursday, with only the United States and Israel opposed, calling for an international Middle East peace conference and U.N. supervision of Israeli-occupied Arab lands. And a senior Soviet official in Geneva called for immediate preparations for a Middle East peace conference.
Israeli Response Sought
Another emerging Mideast tack is a concerted program of both public and private diplomacy meant to push Israel into some positive response.
“Israel’s rigid attitude toward the Palestine Liberation Organization is not serving Israeli interests,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg said in a statement quoted by the national NTB news agency. “I will not be surprised if the Americans are fed up with Israel’s rigid attitude in the Middle East issue.”
British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe warned that “time is not on (the Israelis’) side. We admire very much the courage with which the people of Israel have established their own country after all the long historic sufferings of those people. But they too must recognize that they cannot build their future on the insecurity and hostility of the Palestinians.”
Asked at a press conference on his way home from Geneva if Israel will now have to talk to the PLO, Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vernon A. Walters, replied: “If they want peace they’ll have to.”
Europeans have long had deep reservations about Washington’s Middle East policy, seeing it as dangerously skewed toward Israel. Some countries, such as Greece, Spain and Norway, have been outspokenly critical, while others, such as Britain, have been more taciturn.
However, since last month’s Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers, when the PLO’s legislature specifically endorsed the so-called two-state solution, the gap between Europe and Washington has widened dramatically.
“The PLO is a fact,” Italian Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita told The Times in an interview before his visit to the United States this week. “That reality cannot be ignored.”
Turkey, a Muslim country and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was among the largely Arab list of nations to formally recognize the embryo Palestinian state proclaimed in Algiers.
All the West European countries except Britain joined in a U.N. vote condemning Washington’s decision not to grant PLO leader Yasser Arafat a visa to enter the United States to address the world body at its New York headquarters. And even Britain, America’s closest ally in Europe, abstained in the vote.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was also a key restraining influence earlier this month when European Communities heads of state, at a meeting in the Greek city of Rhodes, issued a watered-down statement of support for the PLO.
Commenting on that statement, a disappointed Jacques Delors, the French member of the European Commission, said, “The Palestinians reached out to Europe, but Europe didn’t return the favor.”
While not as strong as some would have liked, the Rhodes statement nevertheless reflected the emergence of a distinct European political line. And only a week later, Britain broke a five-year diplomatic quarantine when Waldegrave met publicly with Bassam abu Sharif, a key aide to Arafat.
The change in the U.S. position was thus “extremely welcome in Europe,” James Eberle, director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs here, said in an interview.
Praise by Mitterrand
President Francois Mitterrand of France, opening a meeting with the leaders of 40 African countries Thursday, praised the American move as having brought “peace in the region a step closer.”
Exactly how much the Europeans may have influenced Washington’s policy shift may never be known.
“It’s very difficult to say,” Eberle said. “If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said not much.” He believes that Arafat’s public acceptance of American conditions for a dialogue was the pivotal factor.
Swedish Foreign Minister Sten Sture Andersson clearly played a key mediating role in recent weeks, succeeding in the end in bridging the gap that had remained between Washington and the PLO after the PLO’s meeting in Algiers.
And a British Foreign Office spokesman contended that his country had a special influence on events, although he acknowledged that Britain had merely “helped to grasp the opportunity.”
“What has created the opportunity is events in the (Israeli) occupied territories and PLO reaction to them,” he said.
Non-Europeans clearly made important contributions as well.
“Active lobbying was done as much by the Egyptians as anyone,” commented David Butter, an editor for the London-based Middle East Digest.
Egypt’s leading newspaper, the semi-official Al Ahram, confirmed Thursday that President Hosni Mubarak urged Secretary of State George P. Shultz during a 15-minute telephone conversation the day before to “take a positive attitude toward the constructive decisions of the PLO.” Hours later, Shultz announced the American policy shift at a press conference.
There was a good deal of agreement Thursday about the dangers that still lie ahead in the Middle East.
While Washington’s action could mark a “historic turning point,” said U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, “it is only the start of a very important process. One cannot be over-optimistic.”
The leading French newspaper, Le Monde, which welcomed the American turnaround with an ecstatic front-page editorial under the headline “Death of a Taboo,” cautioned: “The American Administration, for such a long time paralyzed in the Middle East, will now be able to use its full weight on a totally new base--on the condition, of course, that its efforts are not torpedoed by a spectacular act of terrorism or by the intransigence of Israeli leaders.”
“One has got to have a sense of modified rapture,” agreed Eberle, “because there will be extremists both on the Palestinian and the Israeli side who will do everything they can to torpedo this process.”
“I think all Israel’s friends in Europe and the United States will now come to the same conclusion,” Waldegrave summed up. The “will for peace among Palestinians is real,” he said, and if Israel misses this opportunity, “it may not come again.”
Times staff writers Rone Tempest in Paris and William D. Montalbano in Rome contributed to this article.