The State Department announced yesterday that Secretary of State George P. Shultz will begin a week-long visit to the Middle East Feb. 24 to discuss American ideas on restarting the long-stalled peace process there.
Shultz is expected to visit several Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, before arriving in Israel Feb. 28 for discussion with leaders of its divided government.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has expressed reservations about the "new blend of approaches" being proposed by Shultz, but Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said he supports it.
The tentative U.S. approach is to negotiate limited local autonomy of the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other talks to define the Palestinians' final status would start in December. Both negotiations would take place under the umbrella of an international conference jointly sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Shultz will be sandwiching his Middle East trip between talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow Feb. 21-23 and a NATO summit in Brussels March 2-3.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy briefed Shultz Thursday on recent talks with leaders of Israel, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Special presidential envoy Philip C. Habib earlier went to Amman to brief King Hussein on the new American approach.
A State Department official said Murphy's assessment of the prospects for the new U.S. initiative was "somewhat positive" or "slightly positive."
Meanwhile, a group of Arab-American leaders told Shultz during a 90-minute meeting Thursday night that they remain "extremely apprehensive" about the new U.S. approach to the peace process because of their questions about its "substance."
Khalil Jahshan, chairman of the Council of Presidents of National Arab-American Organizations, said yesterday that the group warned Shultz that past U.S. peace effortswere "doomed" because the United States had failed to recognize the Palestinians' right to self-determination or to choose their own leadership -- the Palestine Liberation Organization "or otherwise."
The group urged Shultz to accept these two principles and make an "unequivocal commitment" to ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of "the substance" of the new U.S. approach, Jahshan said at a news conference.
He described the meeting as "very constructive" and "very friendly," but said Shultz told the delegation he intends to continue abiding by "the traditional American policy" of refusing to deal with the PLO until it renounces terrorism and accepts Israel's right to exist.