Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mixed Response to Peace Plan Greets Baker in Maghreb

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mixed Response to Peace Plan Greets Baker in Maghreb

Article excerpt

WITH the composition of a Palestinian delegation the last great hurdle to a Middle East peace conference, United States Secretary of State James Baker III wrapped up his sixth swing through the region in North Africa, where he hoped to convince the Palestinians' closest Arab allies to embrace the US-sponsored peace process.

Mr. Baker's intention, according to US officials, was to impress upon Arabs whom the Palestinians trust that a conference represents an opportunity for them - one that is not likely to come along again soon.

Publicly, both US officials and their North-African counterparts insisted the discussions, which ended yesterday in Algiers, were not conceived as go-between sessions either to reach or represent the Palestine Liberation Organization. But as downtrodden and isolated as the PLO may be following the Gulf war, the organization still represents most Palestinians and so must agree to any Palestinian delegation.

Israel has said it would reject any Palestinian representative with links to the PLO, or who lives in East Jerusalem. One oft-discussed compromise is to include Palestinians from Jordan. "We cannot exclude our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem from being represented," said Bassam Abu Sharif, adviser to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. "No one has the right to exclude them."

Following talks with Palestinians in Jerusalem Friday that Baker considered encouraging, indications from PLO officials over the weekend were conciliatory, but remained ambiguous.

On Saturday, Mr. Arafat called on all parties to "make peace like brave men." Speaking on French television from Tunis, Arafat nevertheless refused Israeli diktats on a Palestinian delegation, and said Washington should "ask us directly" about concessions on a delegation makeup.

AT no point in the three-country Maghreb visit did Baker meet any representatives of the PLO, headquartered in Tunis. But if US officials chose to add North Africa to Baker's Middle East itinerary, it is because Israel's acceptance last week of a peace conference conditional on the makeup of the Palestinian delegation made discussions with PLO interlocutors suddenly urgent. …

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