Church and State: Vignettes from the Peace Talks; Corridor Diplomacy and Hotel Briefings

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Church and State: Vignettes from the Peace Talks; Corridor Diplomacy and Hotel Briefings

By John Asfour

"You should have two principles in entering these talks: Do not be provoked by Israel no matter what the Shamir delegates say or do. And do not give up and walk away."

The advice was given to the Palestinian delegates at a large but very private party 48 hours before the first round of Washington Mideast peace talks began on Dec. 10. The speaker was a former US official with long experience in the Israel-Palestine problem. Responding, Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi, former radical nationalist who has, in his 72 years, given so much to the medical and national needs of his people, said: "I am convinced that we can reach a real peace, because our people and the Israeli people both want to reach an agreement." He was to repeat that refrain, bringing the Israeli people into his equation, constantly during the next two weeks.

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For reporters, the December talks in Washington became a race on foot and by taxi between three major sites: The Department of State, where there was no information available; the Grand Hotel, owned by Arab investors and where both Palestinian and Jordanian delegates held separate press conferences daily during the talks; and the Madison Hotel, also owned by a Middle East combine, but where the Israeli delegation held the last press briefing each day. About 50 to 100 journalists covered the talks this way. All major networks covered the daily press briefings, although they used only a few seconds each day.

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There was less stardom in Washington than in Madrid for the main Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi. That was partly because she had a difficult point to make that simply did not lend itself to being newsworthy: It was that the Palestinians had been promised two-track negotiations--one with a Palestinian delegation and the other by Jordan with Israel. The press would rush from the State Department noon briefing to cover the 1:30 pm explanations by Ashrawi that Israel had reneged on an agreement made at Madrid to negotiate with the Palestinians on a second track, as specified in the letter of assurance from the co-sponsors, the Soviet Union and the US. At one point in the first day's briefing she used the term "moved the goal posts" to explain what the Israelis were doing in demanding that the Palestinians negotiate only in a subcommittee, and not as a full-fledged delegation to the talks. One hour later the Israeli spokesman, Benjamin Netanyahu, used exactly the same term to describe what the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation was doing.

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The Israeli delegates repeatedly made the point that they were in Washington reluctantly. They did not like the publicity or hard questioning, although Arab journalists were present at their briefings. Negotiations with Syria turned out to be the surprise. Even the Israelis admitted that there seemed to be a change toward negotiating some kind of a real peace, if Israel gave up the Golan area. And Assad released several hundred dissidents and commuted the prison sentences of two Jews in the midst of negotiations.

"Israel confuses the two-track negotiations; we stress their importance."

Each day, the Department of State spokesperson repeated the "hope that the parties would get on with the negotiations and get into substance." The US refused to give its interpretation of what had been agreed to by the parties and refused to release the letters of assurance which spelled out the agreement and which had been issued before Madrid. The spokesperson would only point out that there were three rooms for the meetings between the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. The two smaller ones were designated for "Jordan-Israel" and for "Palestinian-Israel" talks. There also was one room each for the Syrian-Israeli and the Lebanese-Israeli talks. The US refused to be drawn into interpreting what was meant by the "two-track" approach, but the deliberate ambiguity apparently backfired, with each party interpreting it differently. …