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Negotiators Wage Battle of Sound Bites

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At about 9:30 a.m. Sunday, State Department officials told Israeli delegates preparing for eagerly anticipated talks with Syria that the Syrians, playing hard to get, would not arrive for the scheduled morning meeting.

The Israelis, led by a top aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, trooped from their hotel to the original 10 a.m. appointment anyway, waited half an hour and when the Syrians did not appear, expressed disappointment in astonished tones.

“Frankly, we’re dumbfounded,” Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the spokesman for the Israelis, said to a bank of television cameras. “We were there, and they weren’t!”

He would later maintain that he was told of the Syrian absence only two minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin.

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For all the high-minded talk of the historical significance of the day, the first time that Israel has engaged in face-to-face negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, there was still plenty of room for public relations high jinks. The battle of the sound bite, however silly it has often seemed, has been a main feature of the Madrid peace talks, expressing the supreme importance the participants put on impressing the worldwide audience watching the proceedings.

The Syrians, whose officials hail from a police state unaccustomed to the modern craft of tailoring their statements to the mass media, or even making statements, nonetheless entered the fray.

As word spread on the airwaves that the Israelis were making much hay over the absence of Syria at the morning session, the Syrians sent two representatives to the same site, a salmon-colored palace in central Madrid, in the early afternoon. They then could say that the Israelis did not appear.

With all the televised smoke, it became increasingly difficult to keep an eye on the issues involved, much less to make sense of them. Secretary of State James A. Baker III expressed unusually open exasperation when, after his appearance on NBC television’s “Meet the Press,” he blurted into a still-live microphone, “God, it’s incredible what they can argue about.”

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Israel proposed that future one-on-one talks with the Arabs take place in Middle East capitals. The Syrians and Israel, for instance, would alternate between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Israeli officials have presented this as an effort to build goodwill and as a demonstration that the Arabs are ready to make peace. “This would be a symbol of Arab acceptance of Israel,” said Zalmon Shoval, Jerusalem’s ambassador to Washington.

Yosef Ben-Aharon, the head of the Israeli team that is negotiating with the Syrians, seized on the issue as an example of Syrian intransigence. “This highlights the problem we have had with Syria since the beginning--their attempt to dictate the rules,” he said indignantly.

The Arabs insist that by meeting with Israel, no matter where, they have already conceded a form of recognition and don’t want to take it further until they have extracted a commitment from Israel to return land it won during the 1967 Middle East War: the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

The Syrians accused the Israelis of trying to pull a fast one at the last minute. “This is not an acceptable position,” Zohair Jenan, the Syrian spokesman, argued, “since it has never been raised before.”

That didn’t explain either the Syrian refusal to show up Sunday morning or their demand that the Arabs hold their meetings with Israel in the same building. The demand has to do with Syria’s effort to obscure the face-to-face nature of its talks with Israel by making it appear that all the Arabs are sort of holding a general meeting not much different from the ceremonial speechmaking session held last week.

Well, OK, Israel put away its indignation and agreed to meet with Syria and the Syrian-influenced Lebanese delegation later in the day, and in the same place where they had met the Palestinians.

But in return for their cooperation, the Israelis extracted a pledge from Baker to toss praise their way in his closing comments to the press Sunday night, Israeli officials said. Baker obliged, thanking Israel for “going the extra mile.”

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The Palestinians, the only Arab delegation that showed up for their 10 a.m. appointment, seemed immune to the Israeli-Syrian publicity struggle, but only because they had different public relations goals in mind, Palestinian observers say. The Palestinians denied that they were breaking ranks with Syria, contending that the Syrians knew they were going to meet the Israelis Sunday morning and had approved.

“We did not act like the Syrians because we want to impress Israeli public opinion,” said Daoud Kutab, a Palestinian journalist. “We don’t have tanks and planes like the Syrians. We only have the power of persuasion.”


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