Christopher resumes US Mid-East role

THERE is something depressingly familiar about yet another US secretary of state boarding his government jet at the start of yet another trip round the Near East to advance some peace plan or another. And Warren Christopher is on familiar ground. He had worked with Jimmy Carter during the Camp David process. Today he returns to the area which 15 years later is still discussing the same matters: the Palestinian issue; and the achievement of peace between Israel and neighbouring Arab states.

Mr Christopher held out little hope for progress during his current trip. He arrives today in Egypt and goes on to Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. He played down expectations of any breakthrough in the peace process. He did not even expect to get agreement on when those talks might resume. On the eve of his departure he emphasised that his main aim was familiarisation at first hand of the personalities and issues.

'I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be with the region or its principal personalities. So I don't want to establish a particular target for the trip,' he said. 'I think I'll be quite satisfied if I have an opportunity to listen to what they have to say, to what is on their minds and try to get some sense . . . as to where the negotiations stand,' he added.

'I hope that subsquently the peace process can be restarted with a rescheduling of the bilateral and multilateral negotiations, but I would not expect that to happen during the course of my trip,' Mr Christopher said.

Yet the Middle East peace talks were the one foreign policy success which Mr Christopher was meant to have inherited from the Bush-Baker team. They had laid the ground by getting the Arab parties to sit round the table with the Israelis in Madrid 16 months ago. They had subsquently contrived to lever out the intransigent Mr Shamir, and helped Mr Rabin become prime minister of Israel. Mr Rabin however, whose change of tone towards the Syrians has elicited a positive response from Damascus, then caused the current impasse because of his expulsion of 400 Palestinian Islamic militants. That impasse over the deportations remains. The Israelis will continue to try to bend Mr Christopher's ear to suggest that the problem is being exaggerated, that the Arab states - particularly Syria - are keen to get down to business, that when the invitations are delivered for the resumption of talks, the Arab states will go. The Arab states, however, are reluctant to make any move before there is a more satisfactory resolution of the deportation issue.

Simply, they wish to see the US show it can exert influence over Israel to implement UN resolution 799 on taking back the deported Palestinians. Otherwise they argue, how can they expect the US to coax, cajole or pressurise Israel to implement UN security council resolution 242, which is the basis for the peace talks?

King Hussein of Jordan has ended speculation by confirming that he will be succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, 12 years his junior. Prince Hassan was appointed heir apparent, rather than any of the monarch's sons, some 25 years ago. In a BBC interview, the King said he would not renege on this commitment.

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