Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Palestinians Harden Position on Peace Talks with the Third Round of Bilateral Talks to Start Monday, Palestinians Weigh Whether to Make a Settlements' Freeze a Precondition to Future Negotiations

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Palestinians Harden Position on Peace Talks with the Third Round of Bilateral Talks to Start Monday, Palestinians Weigh Whether to Make a Settlements' Freeze a Precondition to Future Negotiations

Article excerpt

THROUGH two rounds of Middle East peace talks, halting Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has been a principal Palestinian goal.

As round three begins Monday, Palestinians are threatening to change the ground rules. Frustrated by an unprecendented expansion of settlements, Palestinian leaders are weighing whether to make a settlements' freeze the precondition to - and not just an objective of - future peace talks.

"We insist that Israel should freeze the settlements," says Farouk Kaddoumi, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) political department.

As Palestinians and negotiators from Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan converge on Washington this weekend, the settlements issue is not the only one threatening the peace process. In Lebanon fighting between Israeli and Shiite Muslim forces complicates the participation of Lebanon and its patron Syria.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Bush administration and Congress are on the verge of a consequential decision over a $10 billion loan guarantee request from Israel, which could have direct bearing on the peace process.

This is the third round of bilateral talks launched last October in Madrid. Other states in the region will be joining multilateral talks on regional issues ranging from water resources and arms, to economic development.

Mr. Kaddoumi has been lobbying for Arab nations to honor Palestinian demands that they not move to other issues in either the bilateral or multilateral talks without ensuring a freeze on the settlements, Palestinian officials say.

Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the three other Arab parties involved in the talks, have agreed to back the Palestinian demand, according to these officials.

However, the three governments did not promise to pull out of the talks if Israel insisted on its position to continue settlements in the occupied territories, Palestinian and Arab officials say.

In fact, the PLO, which has been supervising the Palestinian delegation despite its exclusion, has not yet decided whether to withdraw from the talks if Israel maintains its stance. US loan guarantee is key

The Palestinian position is expected to hinge, to a large extent, on US success in pressuring Israel to stop settlement activity in return for the $10 billion loan guarantee. …

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