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Foreign Policy Revamp Lit Fire of Israeli Talks : Mideast: Planners were given free rein to restructure, find new approaches to peace with Arab neighbors.


JERUSALEM — A year ago, as Shimon Peres and his top advisers began total restructuring of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, they agreed there should be a small group to re-examine the country's policy positions and explore new approaches, especially to peace with its neighbors.

The instructions to the ministry's new political planning branch were: "Be creative, be daring, be provocative," according to Yitzhak Oren, who oversaw the restructuring as the ministry's head of coordination. "We told them, 'Slay all the sacred cows--just butcher them.'

"We could see a real chance of peace ahead, and we knew we needed a lot of new thinking to make it work. . . . Today, we see some of the results."

Not all of the progress made in the peace talks over the past year with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan was due to the new group's work--the hard decisions were made by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres--but the unit's efforts reflected the Israeli determination to maintain the momentum of the peace talks with a continuing search for compromises.

"The test has been not to rest and not to stand pat, but to keep pushing for those decisive, crucial breakthroughs," Mark Sofer, a Peres policy adviser, said. "The decisions are made at the highest levels, as they should be in a democracy, but we have had the most free-wheeling discussions imaginable at the working levels."

And Oren and Sofer credit the half-dozen members of the Foreign Ministry's policy planning unit with getting Israeli leaders to think in new directions, consider challenging scenarios, particularly in negotiations with the PLO.

" 'Don't repeat our ideas to us,' Peres told them," Oren recounted. " 'Tell us something new, tell us something provocative, . . . tempt us to think in new ways.' That is very difficult for any bureaucracy to do, but it is something we had to do if we were going to find a way out of this very, very long conflict."

The task before Israeli diplomats over the past year has been immense, both in terms of its life-or-death importance for the country and in its sheer scope and complexity--five sets of negotiations with different partners, each with its own issues, each with its own forum, each with its own style.

A former Rabin adviser compared it to "solving four or five very difficult simultaneous equations, each of which is itself the sum of 10 or 20 other equations."

"Every time we reached an agreement with the Palestinians, we had to ask what impact it would have on Jordan or Egypt," he said, referring to the countries that border the self-governing Palestinian territories. "Every sentence we wrote with the Jordanians, we had to examine in terms of the treaty we hope one day we will negotiate with the Syrians."

Since its establishment as a state in 1948, Israel has longed for the day when it would be able to negotiate peace treaties with each of its immediate Arab neighbors and achieve acceptance in the region as a whole.

"Shimon Peres has dedicated years of his life, decades actually, to reach this point, but far from sitting back and savoring it, he's working 20 hours a day to make sure we succeed," Sofer said. "These are crucially important times, the issues are incredibly complex and sensitive, and the energy required for so many sets of negotiations is immense."

At the same time, Israeli negotiators are largely drawn from diplomats, along with some soldiers and a few academics, who have been waiting their entire career for this moment.

"In a sense, we have been preparing for these talks for 45 years," Oren said. "They have not caught us by surprise. The logistics, the position papers, the internal discussions--these are things we have been trained and prepared for.

"And so we were ready and we are coping because this is the moment for which we have lived--the hope that soon we will be at peace with our neighbors. Idealism, yes, but it's an ideal that gives people the energy to work 18-hour shifts and still be sharp and critical and creative."

Yet all their ideas, including those of the brainstorming Foreign Ministry policy planners, are run past Peres and finally Rabin before they are put on the negotiating table as Israel's position.

"In the end, the final coordination is done by Rabin and Peres, especially Rabin, for every move we make must have political support among the Israeli public," a senior Israeli diplomat said. "That means Rabin sits and weighs what he can sell and what he needs in return to sell it. Those are the nitty-gritty talks: Rabin sitting with Peres and then Rabin sitting by himself."

As the negotiations proliferated, this has been harder. The volume of decisions has grown and the speed of the process has accelerated:

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