UNITED NATIONS, DEC. 10 -- In an effort to avoid a U.S. veto and to maintain the cohesion of the international coalition against Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have diluted their call for a Security Council resolution on the Palestinian issue that "considers" convening an international Middle East peace conference, Arab diplomats said today.
Arab countries had raised the issue of a peace conference as they sought a Security Council response to Israel's refusal to allow a U.N. team to investigate the Oct. 8 killing of 17 Palestinians by security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The three Arab countries now say a resolution need not address the issue of a peace conference head-on. The shift seemingly would allow these countries, which are allied with the United States against Iraq, to avoid the embarrassment of being associated with a U.S. veto on an issue of deep political resonance in the Arab world. The United States has opposed a conference at this time, while insisting that consideration of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait should not be linked to the Israeli-Palestinian question.
A U.S. official welcomed the Arabs' initiative, saying that it was important because "the original purpose of the resolution is focused on again." That focus, he said, was to find ways of improving the protection of Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel.
A Syrian official confirmed that his country did not insist on inclusion of the peace conference in a resolution. The aim, he said, was to avoid a U.S. veto because Israel might read that as a green light to pursue further harsh tactics against Palestinians in the territories.
A representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization's U.N. observer mission confirmed that Saudi Arabia had approached his organization to "give advice." "They said, 'Let's try to accommodate the Americans,' " the representative explained, but he did not say whether his delegation would follow the advice.
But another Palestinian representative said the response was to tell the Saudis that "we were already extremely flexible and it's the U.S. that is not being flexible."
Rather than holding out for a resolution that "considers" a peace conference, some Arab diplomats say Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would probably settle for a statement by the president of the Security Council proposing a conference. Such statements are viewed by diplomats here as being less weighty and binding than a resolution.
Under a proposal now being discussed, this statement might be backed up by a mention of a peace conference in the preamble of a draft resolution to make it more palatable to the nonaligned countries sponsoring a rival resolution.
The Security Council met tonight solely to postpone a vote, which it scheduled for Wednesday.
While neither Egypt, Syria nor Saudi Arabia sits on the council, their views carry weight with the other nonaligned members that are serving two-year rotating terms.
"While we support the idea of a conference, we can live without it being in a resolution at this time," a senior Egyptian diplomat said. "If the conference is not included it doesn't mean the conference won't be referred to at a later stage."
The official said that the idea is to find a proposal that enhances the protection of the Palestinians. A U.S. proposal would call for U.N. personnel to monitor the Palestinian population. It also calls on the signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention dealing with the treatment of civilians in wartime to give their views on the "idea" of meeting and discussing "possible measures."
But a more strongly worded draft put forward by the nonaligned would consider the convening of a peace conference "at an appropriate time." While the language corresponds to stated U.S. policy, agreement has been complicated by the fact that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has linked a pullout of his troops from Kuwait to a Middle East solution.
"We want to make clear that there is no linkage with this particular issue with what's going on in Iraq and Kuwait or with any proposals that have been made in that context," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering told reporters over the weekend.
While the United States. does not want to create the impression of a linkage with the Persian Gulf, in the minds of many Arabs the two issues are strongly related. "The U.S. is vehement about the occupation of Kuwait but it doesn't seem to care about the Palestinian problem," said an Arab diplomat who did not want his name used. "It enhances the perception of a double standard."