With Secretary of State James A. Baker III applying intense pressure, Jordan and the Palestinians agreed Friday to begin sharply limited face-to-face talks with Israel here Sunday, despite Syrian objections that the schedule was dictated by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government.
A day that began with an extraordinary public display of rancor between Israeli and Syrian leaders ended with the heads of the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations announcing that they would acquiesce to Israel’s demand for a brief meeting--limited to determining the time and place for later talks.
Syria also was expected to accept those conditions, although Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh complained to Baker in an often-emotional, two-hour meeting that his country was ready to begin substantive talks in Madrid, and he objected strongly to Israel’s insistence on discussing only procedural matters.
The seemingly arcane squabble between Israel and Syria guaranteed that the vitriol that marked the ceremonial three-day opening of the Middle East peace conference will carry over into the crucial stage of separate, face-to-face talks between Israel and each of its Arab adversaries.
Shamir wants the one-on-one talks to alternate between Israeli and Arab cities because, as Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained, his government wants to demonstrate that Israeli officials can be welcomed in Arab capitals. More than that, he said, Arab countries whose officials travel to Israel would tacitly accept Israel’s right to exist as a nation.
Syria has insisted that the talks remain in Madrid indefinitely to spare Arab delegates the indignity of visiting Israel while Israeli troops occupy land that the Arabs consider theirs. “Madrid is the ideal place” for the talks, Shareh said. “We believe a transfer is not justified.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Kamel abu Jaber told an afternoon news conference that Israel’s concentration on the site of the talks was intended to “distract attention from the substantial issues. We demand that the venue remain in Madrid for the time being,” he added.
But Palestinians, who are technically members of a joint delegation with Jordan, were eager to start the bilateral phase, even on Israel’s terms. Even when Abu Jaber was demanding continued talks in Madrid, U.S. officials said privately that they were certain that Jordan and the Palestinians will participate in the talks Sunday.
The Jordanian foreign minister made it official after a three-hour caucus of Arab delegates in the posh Ritz Hotel behind a security curtain that was daunting even by the standards of this security-obsessed conference.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez, whose country is strongly influenced by Syria, said he is unable to say whether the Lebanese will be present Sunday. “We are consulting with our governments,” he said. “There are some more consultations.”
The argument over the location of the talks seems trivial in comparison to the questions of occupation, security, terrorism and historical animosity that the parties must address if the one-on-one talks ever get going.
Baker had hoped to wrap up all such disputes early Friday, in time for him to announce the next phase of the talks in his speech to the concluding public session of the conference. Despite the heavy pressure on Shareh, Baker was forced to say, “The parties have not yet been able to agree on where to hold these negotiations.”
Baker tried to win Shareh’s approval during an unscheduled, two-hour break in the conference’s closing public meeting. A senior State Department official, acknowledging that the meeting was tense, said of Shareh: “He’s an emotional and passionate individual.”
Later, Baker huddled with officials of two of Washington’s closest Arab allies--Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa and Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States--to enlist their help in bringing the Syrians around. Moussa and Bandar relayed Baker’s message to the Ritz Hotel meeting of Arab delegates. During the meeting, hotel guests were required to show their keys before they could enter the lobby; outsiders were refused entry.
An Arab diplomat predicted after the meeting that Syria would have little choice but to go along with the Sunday meeting. “They never wanted to be here in the first place,” the diplomat said. “They were forced into it. Just as they were forced into it, they can’t back out now. They have no choice.”
The diplomat was referring to Syria’s need to cultivate good relations with the United States after its traditional superpower champion, the Soviet Union, lost most of its global influence. Baker clearly intends to capitalize on Washington’s enhanced influence to play an “honest broker” role as the Middle East talks progress. In effect, neither Israel nor the Arabs can afford to antagonize the United States.
Despite his private pressure on Syria, Baker refused to assign blame in public for the squabble over the talks’ location. Instead, he warned that the rest of the world will never forgive either Israel or Syria if the talks break down over a trifle.
“From the perspective of most of the world, it would be very difficult to understand how a party could now refuse to attend bilateral negotiations simply because of a disagreement over the site of those negotiations,” Baker said in a stern lecture that marked the end of the opening public phase of the conference. “If you do not seize this historic opportunity, no one else can, no one else will, and no one will blame anyone outside your region.”
But even if Sunday’s meeting goes off without a hitch, peace in the Middle East remains a long way off. The most likely outcome Sunday will be for Israel to demand that subsequent talks be held in the Mideast and for the Arab parties to refuse. If that happens, the talks will break off with no firm schedule to resume.
Nevertheless, Baker decided that it was vital to have some sort of meeting soon to avoid ending the talks with the name-calling that marked the public session.
An Arab diplomat said Shareh was deeply offended by Shamir’s characterization of Syria as “one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world.” The Syrian foreign minister responded in kind by brandishing a 43-year-old British “wanted” poster accusing Shamir, then a 32-year-old guerrilla leader, of terrorism.
The diplomat said that no Syrian officials could listen to claims such as the ones that the Israelis made about their government without going on the offensive. The official said Shareh was left with deep misgivings about whether Syria should remain part of the peace process at all.
Times staff writer Kim Murphy contributed to this report.
Peace Talks at a Glance
Here’s what happened Friday concerning the Middle East peace conference in Madrid: WHERE TO TALK: The peace conference adjourned in rancor after Secretary of State James A. Baker III failed to win Arab and Israeli agreement over where to hold the next phase of the talks. The Israelis and Palestinians agreed to attend an initial face-to-face session in Madrid on Sunday at which the future location of the talks is expected to be discussed. It was not clear late Friday, however, whether Syria would accept the separate bilateral meetings.
WORLD IS WATCHING: Sounding disappointed and angry, Baker told the conferees that the international community would judge them harshly if they fail to move ahead with the peace effort because of the dispute over where to talk.
COOL THE RHETORIC: Foreign Minister Amir Moussa of Egypt urged Arabs and Israelis to cool their rhetoric and put aside “old arguments” in favor of meaningful talks.
PALESTINIAN STATE: The chief Palestinian delegate, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, reiterated Arab demands that Israel give up lands it won in the 1967 war and eventually allow an independent Palestinian state on some of those territories.
THREATS ON ISRAEL: In Beirut, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine guerrilla group threatened Friday to step up attacks on Israel. In Egypt, thousands of hard-line Muslims demonstrated against the Madrid talks, some chanting, “God, kill all the Jews!”