American Ambassador Douglas Kmiec, who last week participated in a conference in Malta on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was initially strongly pressured by the US State Department not to attend the meeting after it was boycotted by two Israeli MPs, The Times has learned from diplomatic sources.

Instead, Prof. Kmiec remained at the conference, which he addressed, saying he was speaking neither as "Israel's lawyer nor Palestine's apologist".

The two members of the Israeli Knesset had pulled out of the Malta conference, sponsored by the United Nations and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM), after they objected to comments by Palestinian officials about the situation in Gaza and the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Contacted by The Times, Prof. Kmiec did not deem it appropriate to comment on internal deliberations and so declined to confirm that some officials at the highest levels of the State Department initially ordered him to follow the Israeli delegation in boycotting the meeting.

However, he said: "What I can say is I was there and that would not have been the case without an ultimate agreement between the State Department and the White House about what a subordinate officer should be doing. My presence certainly reaffirms President Barack Obama's commitment to a two-state resolution of the conflict.

"From the President's perspective and mine, the sooner the parties are back at the table the better. While there was some unhelpful one-sidedness in some presentations, if peace is to have any chance one cannot skip opportunities like this to test the outline of a settlement plan, based on, among other things, the 1967 lines with appropriate swaps and territorial compensation to Palestine."

The ambassador, thus, saw the PAM/UN meeting as an example of how the long-stalled negotiations could proceed by utilising a variety of tracks, including, as he put it, "high-level direct talks to establish a framework and positive atmosphere; parallel or so-called proximity talks on key issues; and lower-level direct talks in which negotiators worked through the details of the issues".

While defending his decision to uphold his commitment to participate at the Malta conference, Prof. Kmiec took the opportunity to salute the memory of former US Secretary of State Al Haig who died last Saturday.

"Al Haig would not have cut and run and those who see that same dogged determination for peace in President Obama kept me right where I needed to be," he said.

"I was privileged over the years to have several opportunities to converse with General Haig about the influence of faith on public responsibility - Haig was Roman Catholic like myself - and I can say without hesitation that General Haig would have appreciated my reminder to the UN delegates of Pope Paul VI's statement that 'if one wants peace, we must work for justice'.

"Al Haig was one of America's true public servants," said Ambassador Kmiec, who served with the former Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration.

"Reagan, too, admired General Haig, who served as Supreme Commander in Europe. Unlike a great many diplomats who use hundreds of words to say very little, Haig was of the belief that alliances were improved with blunt frankness. I must say I have greater appreciation for his position on this today," the ambassador said.

Israel was represented at the Malta meeting by former minister Yossi Beilin, who now heads the Geneva Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian forum aimed at revitalising the peace process, and an Arab Israeli MP, Mohammad Barakeh, who criticised the fact that two of his colleagues in the Knesset had boycotted the conference in Malta.

Among the Palestinian delegates was chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

The aim of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean is to strengthen cooperation and dialogue between the different member states. It consists of MPs from various Mediterranean countries and its secretariat is based in Malta.

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