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Israel Softening Stance on Date for Mideast Peace Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, while insisting that the Middle East talks should be delayed, issued on Friday what amounted to an appeal to Washington to come up with a face-saving formula for Israel’s participation Wednesday, the day designated by the Bush Administration for the start of the next round of peace negotiations.

Shamir’s partial retreat from insisting on a five-day delay showed the difficulty confronting his right-wing government in staying away from talks that it has only reluctantly joined. Officials here were characterizing the flap over the negotiations’ timing--which began with a dispute over where the talks should be held--as a public relations disaster.

“The decision taken by the government of Israel . . . exists and stands. As this point, I don’t see any reason to change this decision,” Shamir told a group of newspaper editors in what at first appeared to be a statement of defiance.

Then, in the same breath, he added: “If something new will come up (from Washington), it could be that something new may come up here also.”

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Shamir’s aides have been busily floating proposals that would let their boss back away from his demand that talks begin on Dec. 9 in Washington. One proposal would allow Israel to send a low-level “technical team” to make preparations, while the full negotiating squad arrives on Dec. 9. Shamir addressed this possibility, saying: “Maybe somebody will come and raise such an idea. We will consider.”

Another proposal would be for a trade-off: Israel shows up on Wednesday, and Bush gives in on one or more of Israel’s other demands. Those demands include a request that the talks take up only procedural matters in Washington and move later to Europe or the Middle East. Israel might also relent if it gets assurances that its face-to-face talks with each of the Arab parties are not held all at once but are staggered across time.

In Washington, the Bush Administration continued its efforts to try to work out a compromise that might persuade the Israelis to participate in the bilateral talks.

Dennis Ross, the top aide for Middle East issues to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, met with Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval for more than 90 minutes Friday to review possible changes that Israel might accept. But neither side announced any breakthroughs.

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“As things look now,” Shoval said later, “we are going to look at all the possible positions and all the possible suggestions. We have talked obviously about the matters at hand, and we will continue to talk about them.”

Shoval continued to insist that despite Israel’s refusal to begin the talks Wednesday, the date and place of the next set of talks was “never . . . the main issue” but rather whether the Arabs are willing to communicate with Israel directly about such questions.

Issues such as this “may look as minor problems--and maybe they are minor problems--but the major problem is to talk to each other directly,” Shoval told reporters Friday. “I think it’s time after 100 years of warfare to discuss peace seriously, to talk to us directly.”

He also said Israel’s other major concern is to ensure that the peace talks eventually are held in the Middle East. Israel had wanted to have the coming round of talks conducted there as a sign that Arab governments are ready to accept Israel’s existence.

Meanwhile, the President hinted that Washington still is determined to go ahead with the talks Wednesday. Asked if the peace conference will be held on schedule, Bush told reporters at a shopping mall in Frederick, Md., that “there will be one.

“I don’t know who’s going to show on Dec. 4. We want to get the talks going, though,” he said.

The first round of peace talks took place a month ago in Madrid; the delay in getting together again has raised suspicions in Washington that Israel, which introduced the use of changing locations, wants to stall.

Shamir appeared to suggest that, in all events, the talks will eventually take place. “I don’t think that the peace process will collapse over such an issue. There are too many parties interested in it and in having it continue,” he said.

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As Shamir hinted at retreat, government spokesmen eagerly altered the public “spin” of Israel’s side of the dispute. After days in which officials criticized the United States for high-handedness, spokesmen focused Friday on the Arab role. All the Arab participants--Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians--have agreed to meet with Israel on Dec. 4.

“This is really directed at the Arabs. We want to let them know they have to deal with us, not just with the Americans,” said a senior Israeli government official.

Underlying the Israeli reaction to the Bush Administration’s role in the talks is a fear that peace talks will eventually hinge on Israel’s willingness to surrender territory to the Arabs and that the United States will come down on the Arab side in the land-for-peace scenario.

Williams reported from Jerusalem and Pine from Washington.


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