Washington 'full partner' at talks: Strength of US determination to extract Israeli concessions is a key issue as Middle East negotiations resume, writes Charles Richards

WHAT does Norman Podhoretz know that the Palestinians do not? Whatever it is, it has added fuel to the more general debate raging within the American Jewish community about the nature of its support for Israel.

When the editor of Commentary magazine and ideological leader of the American Jewish right attacked the peace policies of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, he brought down a deluge of criticism from more liberal Jewish opinion in the United States. Here was the man who, during the dark days when Likud were in power, sanctimoniously admonished all those who sought to criticise the intransigent policies of Yitzhak Shamir. American Jews should support Israel, right or wrong.

In a lengthy apologia in the current issue of Commentary, Mr Podhoretz explained his volte-face. It was not only permissible, but appropriate to criticise the willingness of the Labour government in Israel to trade territory for peace. 'What had been attempted rape under Shamir became under Rabin a happily consensual affair . . . the peace process is a trap from which it will be very hard for Israel to escape.'

Henry Siegman, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, aired his disgust in the letters page of the New York Times with hawks such as Mr Podhoretz 'who carried on endlessly about the immorality of American Jewish criticism of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (and who) have suddenly and shamelessly discovered the virtues of democratic dissent now that their man is out of office'.

The substance of Mr Podhoretz's argument was that the proposals made by the Israeli government for autonomy for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza would lead inevitably and inescapably to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The one group that does not share Mr Podhoretz's prognosis are those who have most to gain, the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, whether in the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunis, or their surrogates at the negotiating table in Washington, have found no cause for hope that the interim or transitional arrangements they are discussing now will one day lead to their desired goal of an independent state. It is only with reluctance that they have been brought back to the negotiations in Washington, due to start today after a five-month break.

The hiatus was brought about by a combination of factors: the change in the US administration, and the furore caused by Mr Rabin's expulsion of some 400 Palestinian Muslim militants in December. Since then, the US has been seeking to tempt the Arab parties back to the table. The administration had little difficulty with the three Arab states: Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It had rather more problems with the Palestinians, who demanded - and obtained - a week's postponement. This, however, will probably be the last time the Palestinians can exercise a veto over the others. For this ninth round of talks will differ from previous ones in that it will be a continuous negotiation. Delegations will be free to come and go as they wish. They will not need to come all together or leave as one.

The inducements the US gave to persuade the Arabs back to the table centre on one main area: the commitment made by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to act as 'full partner' in the search for a peaceful settlement. It is this, rather than any expected Israeli concessions to the Palestinians on the substance of autonomy, which is thought likely to be the main change in the next phase of the negotiations. The Israelis have said they will take some measures to improve the human rights situation, such as permitting the return of 30 or so Palestinian activists expelled over the past 20 years (out of a total of around 2,400).

Some misgivings have been expressed in Arab quarters about the apparent greater support for Israel shown by President Clinton. In his first joint press conference with Mr Rabin, he was positively gushing. Other doubts have been expressed about the wisdom of appointing Martin Indyk, a former lobbyist with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, as the new Middle East supremo at the National Security Council. Yet the tilt back towards Israel had begun at Kennebunkport, holiday home of Mr Clinton's predecessor, George Bush, who warmed up the relationship with Israel after the induction of Mr Rabin. US policy in both administrations has been to embrace Israel, to assure it that the US would guarantee its interests, and then to seek to extract from it the territorial concessions required for a lasting peace settlement. The test of US diplomacy now will be to see how determined it is to play a more active role to obtain an agreement on the second part.

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