By Munir K. Nasser
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began Tuesday at Andrews and Bolling air force bases near Washington amid heavy measures of secrecy imposed by the US Administration. The State Department refused to tell members of the negotiating teams where the talks would be held and have forbidden them from bringing cellular telephones into the negotiating rooms.
A State Department official told Albawaba.com that given the facilities available, the US Administration and the parties have decided this is the most effective way to proceed.
“We are not going to get into the details of who will be where,” said the official, who prefers to be anonymous. “The important point is that the Israelis and the Palestinians are involved in very serious and intensive negotiations,” he added.
When asked about the reasons for the media blackout and the secrecy in hiding the delegations in different places, the official said the State Department is going to maintain the press blackout and only speak from the State Department podium.
“The reason basically is that the two sides are coming together to discuss the most important issues of the negotiations,” he said. “They are going to be making the hard decisions and we are going to assist them as much as possible moving towards a final status agreement before September. They are trying to get as much work as possible done on the most serious issues without having to continuously react to what comes out in the press.”
The official said that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is following the negotiations closely. “I would not rule out her meeting with the negotiating teams at some point, but we will not have anything on this until after she returns from Syria,” he added. He confirmed that Aaron Miller and other US officials from the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau are involved in the negotiations, adding that Dennis Ross will participate when he returns from the funeral of President Assad.
The official reaffirmed that President Clinton was prepared to bring the leaders together when appropriate basis exists and conditions are right. He said President Arafat is scheduled to meet with the President on Thursday, and the meeting with the Albright will probably be scheduled for Thursday.
When asked about the difficulties facing Prime Minister Barak in keeping his government from falling, he said he will not comment on Israeli internal politics. He added, however, that “a series of Israeli governments and the Israeli people have long been committed to achieving a comprehensive peace with all their neighbors,” he said. “Prime Minister’s Barak and his government remain committed to this goal and we will do everything we can to assist them.”
Israeli press reports speculated on Tuesday that the negotiations will be divided into civil and security tracks, with Israeli negotiator Oded Eran facing Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on civilian issues, while the Israeli military and Shin Bet representatives discussing security aspects with Mahmoud Dahlan and Hassan Asfour from the Palestinian delegation. The reports said that top negotiators Ben-Ami and Abu Ala, the heads of the respective delegations, would discuss those matters somewhere in between.
The official said he wouldn’t agree with such reports. “I heard the negotiations are divided into civil-military, interim-final, one side is the back channel, one side is the open channel; all of that is theory,” he said. “This is something we are not going to react to or discuss. The Israelis and Palestinians have asked us to have them set up this way and if they feel this is the best way to make progress, then we will accommodate them,” he explained.
When asked to comment on press reports that the Israeli delegation “noticed a sense of general exhaustion and skepticism emulating from the Clinton government over the president's ability to pull off another Mideast success,” the official refused to comment.
“We are not reacting to that officially,” he said. “What we said is that the President and the Secretary consider this as one of their top foreign policy items. They are going to do whatever thy can to assist the parties, including facilitating the negotiations, possibly a summit if they made enough progress.”
The official continued that he would not agree with any assessment that says that the Clinton Administration is exhausted or skeptical.
“Clearly they are not exhausted and they want to see a comprehensive peace achieved in the Middle East,” he noted. “President Clinton said that this is one of his top goals before he leaves office. The Secretary said weeks ago that nobody is getting a summer vacation, and every body will be working. These comments are not more than a spin to show that we are getting tired. But in fact we are going to be working harder than we ever had.” – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)