By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that he does not have “high expectations” from his talks with Israeli negotiators in Washington.
Erekat told reporters on arrival to Washington on Tuesday: ''To be honest with you, with all that's going on now, I do not have high expectations.''
Erekat said the only way forward was for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 border and let Palestinian refugees return. ''There is no other equation so it's time for Israel to withdraw its troops and to decide whether it wants to go down the path of peace, or no peace,'' he added.
The Israeli and Palestinian sides were scheduled to begin the talks in separate meetings with US mediators Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller at Bolling Air Force Base on the Potomac River in southeastern Washington. The Israeli team arrived without Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who had to stay behind for Monday's crucial Knesset vote on elections. Ben-Ami arrived in Washington on Tuesday night. The meetings are expected to end by Thursday night, or Friday morning, when the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins.
A State Department official told Albawaba.com that members of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations will meet with President Clinton and Secretary Albright before they leave.
Commenting on the talks at the White House, President Clinton said, “The parties are re-engaging, and they've asked us to be involved, and that's good. But we're going to be on their timetable.” He added that he couldn’t sure whether there would be progress, or if he would make a trip to the region before his term ends on January 20.
Meanwhile, President-elect George W. Bush met with President Clinton on Tuesday morning at the White House to discuss the transition of power between the rival parties. Clinton and Bush are expected to explore a number of policy issues including the economy, foreign policy, and national security.
Talking to reporters before the meeting, Clinton said, "My only advice to anybody in this is to get a good team and do what you think is right."
According to Washington analysts, President-elect Bush, who spoke little about foreign policy during his campaign, is likely to get a course on foreign policy as he faces early tests in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Bush is expected to immediately confront an ongoing crisis in the form of a continuing Palestinian intifada that many believe could destabilize moderate Arab governments, and jeopardize oil supplies and other vital US interests in the Arab world.
Although members of Bush's foreign policy team are still in the early stages of setting priorities, the process accelerated after Bush named Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. Bush and his team will be forced to pay immediate attention to the Middle East -- perhaps more than he had anticipated during a campaign that focused largely on domestic issues such as health care and Social Security.
According to Bush’s advisers, he plans to approach Middle East issues cautiously. During the campaign, the Texas governor indirectly criticized President Clinton for rushing the Camp David summit in July, saying: "it can't be the United States' timetable as to how discussions take place." Bush’s advisers were also critical of Clinton's deep personal involvement in peace negotiations, suggesting that he had devalued the power of his office to influence each side.
Analysts believe the new administration will conduct a full review of the approach to peacemaking that began with the 1993 Oslo accords. One possible outcome is a shift in focus from the Palestinians to Syria, according to Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria who now directs the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.
Djerejian, who has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Dennis Ross, told the Washington Post that an Israeli-Syrian deal may be more achievable in the short term and also would lower the risk of a regional war.
Djerejian said that the Clinton administration made a mistake by focusing on interim peace agreements that ultimately failed to satisfy expectations on either side. The new administration, he said, could profit by returning to the "land for peace" principles enshrined in UN resolutions 242 and 338 and subsequently embraced as the basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations at the 1991 Madrid conference.
"Oslo has to be seriously revisited," Djerejian said. "The original consensus that led to Madrid was, of course, the reiteration of 242 and 338 as the core of the peace process and direct negotiations, and subsumed in all of that is the concept of land for peace. I think that given the protracted nature of [the administration's interim approach], basic principles were lost sight of."
Djerejian said that any discussion of his future is "speculative" and that he has "not been asked" to join the new administration. However, a foreign policy adviser to the Bush campaign said Djerejian "would be any secretary of state's marvelous point man" for the Middle East peace process.”
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)