At the end of November the United States issued invitations to Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Jordanian-Palestinian delegations to come to Washington for the next phase of the talks starting 4 December. Israel reacted sharply and accused the United States Of setting a dangerous precedent. It sent the invitation without consulting Israel. It could set a pattern for indirect talks through the United States. It would encourage the Arabs to think that the United States would play a central role in the talks. Finally, Israel wanted the talks held in the region for psychological reasons. The Arab people must know that their governments are negotiating with Israel. The statement mentioned the fact that Syria did not tell its people that it was talking with Israel in Madrid. The issue of venue again strained Israel-American relations. Text of the Israeli statement follows:
The invitation was conveyed to Israel without prior consultation, contrary to understandings with the United States that such moves would be coordinated with Israel, and that surprises would be avoided.
The outcome of these negotiations is critical to Israel's security and future. Israel has never had to deal simultaneously with four Arab partners to peace negotiations. Each of these Arab parties has immense demands on Israel, which may impact on its ability to survive. Israel cannot be rushed and pressured. It took 17 months of arduous and agonizing talks to achieve a peace pact with Egypt.
Israel has repeatedly asked the United States to help convene the peace talks in the Middle East. The United States responded with some sympathy, but nevertheless decided on Washington as the venue. This, despite the fact that Israel had agreed to begin direct talks in Madrid on the understanding that they would subsequently move to the region itself.
Israel's insistence that the negotiations must be direct and should be held in the negotiating countries stems from the Arab attitude to the peace process itself. For decades, the Arab states have rejected the idea of dealing with Israel directly, insisting on an international conference that would impose a settlement on Israel. With the termination of the Cold War and the removal of Soviet support of their position, the Arab leaders changed tactics. They have agreed to the format of direct talks with Israel, but insisted that they should be sponsored, managed and directed by the United States. In return, they expect the United States to apply its weight behind the scenes to help extract concessions from Israel. Accordingly, they have refused to discuss with Israel the subject of modalities and venue of the talks, and insisted on a location removed from the region. In Arab perception, "direct talks" is a formality which serves as a cover for dealing indirectly through the United States. The Syrian authorities have even prevented the media from broadcasting to the Syrian public that the two sides met for direct talks in Madrid. Israel has tried hard to hold the talks in the countries that are supposed to be moving to peace. There is nothing more natural than that neighbors at war should meet on each other's territory, or on the borders between them, to put an end to hostility and war and conclude a peace agreement.
For Israel, holding the talks in Washington creates great technical difficulties. Israel is a democracy, whose decisions are made by the cabinet under the direction of the Prime Minister, not by a single ruler, as is the case in its neighboring countries. The Israeli negotiators must maintain personal contact with the decision-making level in Jerusalem, and come for consultations on a step-by-step basis throughout the process.
Israel proposed the postponement of the talks for a few days to enable the United States to consider its proposals and consult with the parties. Experience has shown that the gathering of all the Arab delegations at one time will give the hard-liners constant, irresistible leverage that will hamper progress. Israel fears that holding simultaneous talks with three Arab delegations would prevent a free exchange between itself and its interlocutors. Although Israel has warned the United States that convening all the Arab delegations with Israel at the same place and at the same time would not be conducive to successful negotiations, the United States went ahead and invited all four groups to come to Washington on December 4th.
The American decision to intervene in order to break an impasse on the venue question sets a dangerous precedent. The Arab negotiators now realize that by stonewalling and threatening they will persuade the United States to assume the role of arbitrator, and substitute itself for the direct talks.
The United States government has consistently held the position that the Arabs and Israelis must negotiate directly. President Bush said in Madrid: "Peace will only come as the result of direct negotiations, compromise, give and take. Peace cannot be imposed from the outside." Yet, in the United States invitation to the December 4th meeting in Washington, the United States included detailed proposals and suggestions on the talks relating to every one of the three groups. Even before the agenda had begun to be discussed between the sides, the United States bypassed the issue and injected its views on the substance of the negotiations. This will only serve to strengthen the Arab resolve to talk substance only through the United States and meet with the Israelis only for imagery.
A telling example for Israel's concerns is a statement by the head of the Syrian delegation to the peace talks, in an interview on Damascus television. Referring constantly to Israel as "the enemy", the Syrian Ambassador said that the negotiations with Israel were "a continuation of the war in a different form." The only way to test the Arab attitude to the peace talks is to enable Israel to conduct the negotiations directly, face-to-face, without any outside intervention on any aspect. Clearly, this is not the direction the peace process is taking today.