Palestinians, Arabs to rejoin peace talks Tuesday

April 22, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Arab states and Palestinians agreed yesterday to resume negotiations with Israel Tuesday, ending a five-month hiatus prompted by Israel's expulsions of some 400 Palestinians with alleged terrorist links in December.

The decision, announced jointly in Damascus by Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, revives the Middle East peace process against a landscape drastically altered by months of escalating violence and strenuous behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

Arab-Israeli killings in the occupied territories and the regional surge of violent Islamic extremism inject new pressure on the peace process and on the aging group of Mideast leaders pursuing it: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez el Assad and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.

This pressure contributes to what Harvey Sicherman, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, calls "a breaking point," testing whether each of the parties now sees enough ultimate reward in a peace agreement to negotiate seriously.

Before the talks collapsed in December, they had made little progress over the preceding 13 months.

This near-stalemate weakened the political positions of both the Rabin government and PLO-linked Palestinian negotiators. The deportations and escalation of terror only made things worse.

Now Israeli and Palestinian leaders need to show results to their restive constituents.

The Rabin government needs to show that negotiations will lead to improved security for the average Israeli. The Palestinians need to deliver enough gains in the quality of life in the territories to justify settling for something short of an independent state.

The United States, Israelis and Palestinians all favor continuous talks instead of the previous intermittent pattern, although Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have yet to agree.

The more headway is made, a senior U.S. official says, the more the radical opponents of the peace process will be isolated and discredited.

For the moment, however, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have strengthened their hard-line positions in the occupied territories, says.

And Mr. Sicherman predicts an increase in violence as an agreement nears.

Such was the strain required to bring Arabs back to the table after five months -- and a week later than the United States had planned -- that there may now be unrealistic expectations about what the talks will produce quickly.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the Palestinians in particular "may view their major concession as just [one of] showing up. They may have to be hard-line in negotiations to cover their flanks."

This in turn could lead to another stalemate and further disillusionment.

Israel has dangled a "package" of concessions that would follow resumption of the talks, including accelerated return of the deportees, return of other Palestinians deported previously, and administrative changes, improved human rights and economic development in the occupied territories.

Once negotiations resume, Mr. Satloff said, there may be a quick transfer of authority over health, education and economic development to Palestinian authorities as well as serious discussion of procedures for elections.

But Mr. Rabin gave no clear sign of concessions in a statement yesterday.

While Palestinians had pressed Israel to renounce further deportations, the prime minister reiterated Israeli policy that the December expulsions "were unprecedented and exceptional."

"The Israeli government has no plans to resort to further deportations," he added.

It was left to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to supply a missing ingredient.

"We realize that the decision to rejoin the talks was a difficult one for [the Palestinians] . . . to make. I think it was a courageous one and I commend them for making it," he said.

He also reassured wary Arabs that the Clinton team remains committed to the assurances made by the Bush administration and the principles of "land for peace, realizing the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people and security for all parties."

Noting the "very difficult conditions" under which Palestinians now live, Mr. Christopher said:

"Through negotiations, they can see occupation give way to self government and a resolution of final status. Negotiations will put in Palestinian hands the means to build and shape their institutions, their life and their fate."

His statement appeared to address key points that have frustrated Palestinians: lack of understanding of their status as a people under occupation and the prospect that they will gain real authority over their lives and not just be delegated certain tasks by the Israelis.

Yesterday's events reflect the deepening American "full partner" role that has taken shape as Mr. Christopher struggled to get the peace talks back on track.

Other results of this diplomacy include a closer relationship between Mr. Christopher and Mideast leaders, including Mr. Rabin and Faisal Husseini, the aristocratic East Jerusalem leader whose new role as head of the Palestinian delegation marked a concession by Israel.

In addition, said a senior U.S. official, there are improved channels of communication between Mr. Husseini and the Israeli leadership.

And in a move welcomed by the United States, the Saudis helped smooth Palestinians' return to the talks by resuming the funding of the PLO that was cut off when Mr. Arafat backed Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

This money will help the PLO compete with the social services provided by radical Hamas leaders in the occupied territories.

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