Syria has welcomed US Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s scheduled July tour of the Middle East, saying its position is identical to US policy commitments to Damascus, and warning that no comprehensive peace settlement can be achieved without a Syrian contribution. Christopher was due in the region on 17 July and was to attend the first public meeting to be held on Jordanian soil between Israeli and Jordanian officials.

Syria, which objects to the separate PLO-Israel peace agreement and to Jordan drawing closer to the Jewish state, has called for co-ordination among Arab parties. Its talks with Israel are stalled over the occupied Golan Heights and future ties, with Syria insisting on a full Israeli withdrawal from the heights in exchange for full peace.

A Syrian official said on 12 July that his country’s position on the peace process was based on a Syrian-US agreement with former US president George Bush which has been reaffirmed by President Clinton. ‘Syria does not see any difference between her and the US as long as this administration continues to commit itself to the principles on which the peace process was based,’ the official said.

In Cairo, PLO and Israeli negotiators met on 11 July to talk about the next stage in the peace process – giving Palestinians more autonomy, redeploying Israeli troops in the West Bank and preparing for elections. Another round of talks was scheduled for 18 July in Cairo to follow up on ‘early empowerment’ measures such as the transfer of authority in education, PLO officials said. Two committees have been set up to deal with the size of the Jericho area, the expansion of Palestinian authority on the coast in Gaza, the presence of a Palestinian officer in the Allenby bridge border post and the fate of Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres was quoted on 10 July as saying that Jerusalem’s holy sites ‘require a religious rather than a political solution’. The Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem has denied Israeli press reports that consultations had already taken place with Jordan and Morocco on a proposal to establish an international panel comprising Jordan, the Palestinians, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican to oversee the holy places. But Peres appeared to indicate there was some basis to the idea.

In Tabarka, Tunisia, a two-day meeting of Arabs, Israelis, Americans and Russians ended on 13 July with an agreement to set up a think-tank to draw up a picture of what the Middle East might look like in 10 years. The decision was taken by the steering committee of the Middle East multilateral peace talks, headed by US undersecretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Robert Pelletreau. The steering committee was meeting for the first time on Arab soil. The multilateral talks were set up to complement the bilateral negotiations, to look at wider regional issues like water, the environment and defence. Israeli deputy foreign affairs minister Yossi Beilin said a special meeting will be held in Morocco at the end of October to set up a vision for the future.