Arab leaders seek joint response to Israelis

ARAB PARTIES to the peace talks with Israel met in Damascus yesterday to discuss together for the first time how to respond to the new Israeli government, writes Charles Richards.

The US Secretary of State, James Baker, who ended his Middle East tour in Saudi Arabia, sought in Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt a response from the Arabs to match concessions made by Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister.

But the Syrians said yesterday that the Israeli proposals did not go far enough. The Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, said: 'This policy does not provide the minimum level required to push forward the peace process.'

The Arabs have their own worries. Jordan is concerned at reports that Mr Baker, considered by the Arabs as tough towards Israel, might leave the State Department to run George Bush's re-election campaign.

In Damascus yesterday, the foreign ministers of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon met a delegation from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian negotiating team to the Middle East peace talks for the first session of discussions. Even if the meetings do not produce concrete results, they are still an extraordinary development. Two years ago, it would have been inconceivable for Palestinians to have gone from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to meet PLO leaders in Damascus.

The presence of the Palestinian team is the latest test of Israel's official ban on any such contacts with the PLO. Mr Rabin, however, accepts that the Palestinian negotiators might meet whomsoever they like. Such open and flagrant flouting of the ban on contacts with the PLO can only speed up a change in the law.