Middle East conference set in Madrid

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

By Sean Malloy

Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat has called for an Arab summit to work out a coordinated negotiating position at the Middle East peace conference which opens in Madrid on October 30.

The US-organised conference will involve bilateral talks between Israel and Lebanon, Syria and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Egypt and representatives from the United Nations and the European Community will be attending as observers.

This is to be followed by a broader meeting to discuss disarmament, water supplies and the environment, which will include observers from the Gulf and north African states.

The joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation is a concession to Israel's refusal to talk to the PLO. But the Palestinian delegates have openly declared their allegiance to the PLO and are in constant contact with the PLO leadership.

The Israeli cabinet voted to attend the conference only after considerable US pressure and contradictory promises from Washington.

At the same time as assuring Israel that the US doesn't want a fully independent Palestine, that East Jerusalem won't be negotiated and that interpretations of United Nations resolutions 242 and 338 will be open-ended, US secretary of state James Baker assured Arab countries and the PLO that the US supports land for peace, that resolution 242 applies to the Golan Heights and that Palestinians should have more than self-government.

The right-wing Israeli government is still looking for ways to abort the conference. In an attempt to provoke Syria into withdrawing, an aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir accused Syria of being responsible for "all terrorism in Lebanon" after a bomb explosion killed three Israeli soldiers in occupied Lebanon. The statement was after an organisation that has no ties with Syria claimed responsibility.

Divisions within the ruling Likud party and its allies have developed over attendance of the talks. Housing minister Ariel Sharon is leading an ultraright reaction.

Two small parties in the coalition with Likud, Molodet and Tsomet, have stated that they will leave the government if "land for peace" is discussed at the conference. Another small group, Tehiya, will withdraw from the government on the opening day of the conference.

Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli opinion polls have reflected a growing support for negotiated settlements, including territorial concessions. A poll on the Madrid conference indicated 85% support.

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