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Mideast Agreement Should Be Signed in U.S. Next Week

By Thomas W. Lippman and David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Participants in the Middle East peace negotiations said Tuesday they expect Israel's landmark agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization to be signed in Washington next week, but the question of who will sign for the PLO is still being negotiated because Israel has not formally recognized the group.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the United States will "strongly support" the deal and will participate in an international financial aid program for the proposed PLO-run territories in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

The agreement between parties once thought to be the Middle East's most implacable enemies threw a cloud of confusion over the 11th round of U.S.-brokered peace negotiations, which began here Tuesday.

With crucial political negotiations continuing in Norway and the Middle East, Palestinian delegates were wondering what their negotiating mission was, participants said. Representatives to the talks here from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria appeared to be marking time, waiting to see what happens between Israel and the PLO.

U.S. and Israeli officials cautioned against any expectation that the Israel-PLO accord would lead to an early peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Syria has not committed iself to the Israel-PLO deal, officials said, and Israel is facing such a domestic political uproar over its agreement with the PLO that it is unwilling to press for progress on the Syrian front at this time.

U.S. officials and other participants stressed that arduous details remain to be negotiated before the agreement, which confers limited Palestinian self-rule on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, can be fully implemented. They likened the current situation to the tense period that existed between the autumn of 1978, when Israel and Egypt reached an accord at Camp David.

But it was clear that a historic turning point had been reached in the volatile region with the announcement this week of the Israeli-PLO accord. The PLO appears prepared to accept officially the existence of Israel, 45 years after the creation of the Jewish state, while Israel has agreed to negotiate issues previously off-limits, including the status of Jerusalem.

The agreement, negotiated secretly in Oslo, stands on its own, regardless of the outcome of future negotiations in which Israel and the PLO would officially recognize each other, a senior Israeli official said. But the lack of agreement on recognition created uncertainty about who will represent the Palestinians at next week's planned signing.

Senior PLO officials want to come to Washington for a ceremony, Arab diplomats said, but the United States has not formally recognized the PLO, which it still considers a terrorist group. Israel is not yet prepared to sit down with senior officials of a group still nominally committed to Israel's destruction.

"There's been no change in our policy with respect to the PLO at the present time," Christopher told reporters Tuesday. "On the other hand, this is a rapdly changing environment."

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said they were in the midst of talks with the PLO about the issue of mutual recognition. A senior Israeli diplomat, Uri Savir, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, is talking with PLO officials in Norway about meeting Israel's conditions for full recognition.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told reporters that those conditions are acknowledging the right of Israel to exist, "putting an end to terrorism" and changing the PLO covenant to delete references to carrying out armed struggle against Israel.

Beilin said he was not optimistic that the PLO was about to make the change. He said Israel would insist on some tangible proof that the PLO had changed its ways.

Bassam Abu-Sharif, a senior aide to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, told reporters in Tunis that the PLO covenant has been "superseded" by events. PLO officials said similar things in declaring their acceptance of Israel four years ago.

Even by Middle East standards, Tuesday's events were both extraordinary and confusing. Senior Israeli and PLO officials -- the same ones still dancing around the question of whether to recognize each other -- spent much of the day giving speeches and making television appearances defending their agreement against a barrage of criticism from Israelis and Arabs.

Arafat, on the stump in Egypt, called it a "historic achievement." Peres, on "CBS This Morning," said it could end "a hundred years of hatred, of suffering, of misunderstanding, of terror, of war, and offer our children a new morning."