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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Foes Wage Battle Over Shape of Talks

CAIRO -- The gap between Israel and its Arab neighbors has widened as the two sides stake out incompatible positions for if and when peace talks resume.

Arab leaders at a summit which closed in Cairo on Sunday threw a new element into the diplomatic maneuvering when they told the new Israeli government the price it would pay if it tried to change the terms of reference for the negotiations.

In that case Arab states would reconsider the concessions they have made to Israel in the past years of peace talks.

Otherwise the Arab leaders merely restated their standard vision of a final settlement in the long Arab-Israeli conflict -- Israeli withdrawal from all land captured in 1967 and a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But in the tense atmosphere in the aftermath of Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in last month's Israeli elections, Israelis have construed even this as an obstacle to progress.

Israel is inviting its Arab neighbors to talks without preconditions -- tantamount in Arab eyes to reneging on the understandings which made talks possible in the first place.

"The attempt to ... dictate prior conditions that shake the security of Israel doesn't sit with a true peace process," Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters in southern Israel on Sunday. "We won't dictate to them. They won't dictate to us."

The Arabs say it was the new Israeli government that started the dictating game. Its policy guidelines favor more Jewish settlement in Arab areas and reject territorial concessions on the Golan Heights or in East Jerusalem.

The Syrians, whose main aim in peace talks is to recover the Golan Heights, say this would leave nothing to negotiate.

This is the deadlock in the making that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will have to tackle this week on his first trip to the Middle East since the Israeli elections.

The Arab leaders have appealed to the United States to ensure Israel sticks to the old principles, especially the concept of "land for peace" -- that Israel gives back land in exchange for Arab states opening normal peaceful relations.

But Arab diplomats are not optimistic that in an election year U.S. President Bill Clinton will take the same robust attitude toward Netanyahu as then-president George Bush took in 1991 toward right-wing Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir. Western diplomats in Cairo said Monday the future for the Middle East need not be all gloom and doom.

"At least both sides say that they want to keep talking to each other. No one's warmongering yet," said one.

They said the outcome of the preliminary propaganda battle between the two sides was very uncertain, especially as the Israeli side has neither filled in the gaps in its peace policy nor put any of its controversial policies into practice.

On the Golan Heights, for example, Israeli ministers have given mixed signals on the possibility of territorial compromise with the Syrians.

Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said Sunday that Israel should wait at least two generations before discussing withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

But on Friday, Foreign Minister David Levy said, "I believe that if peace serves both sides and they regard it as a primary interest, they will talk and meet halfway." On Monday, he said meeting in the middle "means you sit and talk."

The policy guidelines say, "Retaining Israeli sovereignty over the Golan will be the basis for an arrangement with Syria." Some analysts say the phrasing leaves room for compromise by not specifically insisting on Israeli rule throughout the Golan.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the host of the Arab summit and president of the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, said Sunday the jury was still out on Netanyahu and that he believed in his own powers of persuasion.