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Multilateral Talks Resume

After a three-year hiatus, the multilateral talks resumed in Moscow January 31, 2000, with Foreign Minister David Levy representing Israel during the two-and-a-half-day gathering.

The framework for the multilateral talks between Israel and the Arab states was established at the 1991 Madrid Conference. The talks were intended to be a forum for discussing the economic, social, environmental, and security issues necessary for long-term regional development.

Alongside Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Arab nations participating are Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania. Also attending are the European Union countries, the United States, Turkey, Canada, Russia, Japan, and China. Syria and Lebanon have a standing invitation to the talks, but continue to boycott the talks

The first meetings of the multilateral track took place in Moscow in January 1992. Since then the participants, organized into five working groups, have met formally for seven rounds of talks. There have been no formal talks since May 1996, although some working groups have met informally during this time. The official activities of this track ceased because of a decision taken by the Arab League. Egypt resisted renewing the talks at a high level, but pressure from the U.S. and the willingness of other parties to participate finally took its toll and the plenary meeting was set. Israel was of the position that the Multilateral Talks constitute an integral part of the Madrid process, and fulfill an important role in the peace negotiations. The renewal of the track will enable the entire region to prepare the institutional infrastructure required for an era of regional cooperation.

During the course of the Moscow meeting, there were those who attempted to stall the process, and to limit the renewal of talks to only two of the five main working groups. However, following negotiations in which Israel insisted on a full renewal of the process, and with the support of a majority of the other participant, the Israeli position was accepted.

The five working groups cover:

* Regional and economic development. This is the largest group, both in terms of participants and projects, and the only one with a permanent secretariat. It sits in Amman, is chaired by the EU, and focuses broadly on regional-cooperation projects in areas ranging from trade and infrastructure to tourism and finance.

* Arms control and regional security. This group has been characterized by fundamental disagreements over priorities and approach, with the Arab countries demanding that it focus on the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction - especially Israel's - while Israel wants to focus on confidence-building measures. It is chaired jointly by the US and Russia.

* Refugees. Unlike the others, this group does not focus on future regional relations but rather deals with possible current solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem. It is chaired by Canada.

* Water resources. This group focuses on water management and conservation, as well as new concepts for cooperation. It can chalk up at least one concrete success - the establishment of a desalination research center in Oman, which functions in cooperation with Israeli experts. The group is chaired by the US.

* Environment. This group succeeded in writing up a working document for an environmental code of conflict, laying out principles and guidelines underlying the relationship between environmental management and security issues. The group is chaired by Japan.

The Russian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State described the meeting and its concluding text as a significant contribution to the promotion of Middle East peace. The text sets out, among other things, dates for the convening of plenary meetings of the five working groups as follows:

Water Muscat 11-12 April
Economic Development Amman 8-11 May
Refugees Ottawa 16-18 May
Environment Tunis 31 May-1 June
Regional Security It was decided that consultations between the parties would take place in order to enable the convening of this working group in a few months

In addition, the European Union will host a session of the Steering Committee in June.

Source: Jerusalem Post, (January 31, 2000), Israeli Foreign Ministry, (February 2, 2000)