Israelis, Palestinians need a success at Middle East talks resuming today

April 27, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Negotiators to the Middle East peace talks must produce quick success when they reconvene today to avoid a complete collapse of negotiations, both Israelis and Palestinians have concluded.

Those close to the negotiations to be held in Washington describe this much-delayed ninth round as having "make-or-break" significance for the 1 1/2 -year-old talks.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are so resentful of Israel's increasingly harsh enforcement of its occupation that Palestinian negotiators cannot return without having won some immediate steps to autonomy, they say.

Israel has acknowledged the danger of the total collapse of the talks, and has made concessions.

Over the weekend, the Israeli government announced it would allow about 30 Palestinian deportees to return home after years in exile.

They are among the first Palestinians expelled from the occupied territories from 1967 to 1987 for anti-Israeli activities.

Top Israeli officials last week also publicly floated the promise of a Palestinian police force for the occupied territories.

And they dropped their objection to the formal participation in the talks of Faisal al-Husseini, supervisor of the Palestinian delegation.

Mr. Husseini had been kept out because he is a resident of East Jerusalem which the Israeli government considers part of Israel and therefore feared his formal acceptance would imply a willingness to discuss the status of the city.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said that Israel was willing to compromise and take risks for peace but the Arabs had to compromise as well.

"We from our side see a need to reach a breakthrough in either the negotiations . . . [with] the Palestinian delegation or with the Syrian delegation," he told Israel television yesterday shortly before ceremonies marking Israel's 45th independence day.

Israel has offered a five-year period of self-rule to the 1.75 million Palestinians of the occupied territories. Three years into the arrangement, talks would start on a permanent settlement.

"Our basic approach is that we are willing to transfer to [Palestinian] hands almost all the roles of the civil administration, in all matters regarding the [Palestinian] population and areas where they live," Mr. Rabin said in a lengthy interview over the weekend in the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

U.S. officials have promised to play a more active role in the talks, formulating compromise proposals to keep all sides engaged.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher are committed to "trying to make 1993 the year of progress in these talks, and trying to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself now."

Support by the Palestinian public for participation in the peace talks plummeted when Israel deported 415 alleged Muslim fundamentalists to Lebanon in December.

It has been further diminished by Israel's four-week-old closure of the territories, which has cut off 100,000 workers from their jobs, and by the surge in fatalities, injuries and house demolitions at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

Members of the Palestinian team have been threatened by Palestinian opponents to their talks.

On April 15, masked intruders broke into the home of Saeb Erekat, one of the delegates, and threatened his wife.

Mr. Husseini was prompted to make an unusual public warning that anyone harming his delegation members would "pay a high price."

The Palestinian delegation agreed to leave for Washington only after months of coaxing by the United States and a flurry of meetings of Arab leaders to debate the move.

The Palestine Liberation Organization last week made a rare appeal for public support for resuming the talks.

But the influence of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist organization opposed to talks with Israel, has grown considerably among the 1.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

And the stature of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and his organization depends on the Palestinian negotiators coming away with substantive progress to show.

The Palestinian delegation has come in for some angry criticism for participating in this round of talks. Yesterday, the deportees in Lebanon staged a sit-in near an Israeli checkpoint and complained about the negotiators.

"They have slammed all doors of hope for our speedy return. They have manipulated our plight and now they have gone to Washington to sign whatever Rabin dictates," complained one of their leaders, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a physician from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Husseini has promised the Palestinian team will quit the talks if there is no progress. In an interview on Israel radio, he also warned his countrymen of the consequences of failure, in what seemed a reference to increased violence.

"The Israelis have to understand something: There are means of negotiations, and there are other means," he said. "If the Israelis want to use other means, then we too will use other means."

Israel, too, has been nagged by dissent over the talks. The prospect of a Palestinian police force in the territories was roundly condemned by Jewish settlers who have moved into the West Bank.

"There will be such a bloodbath here that Lebanon will be a joke in comparison," warned Elyakim Ha'etzni, a former Knesset member prominent in the settlers movement.

Creation of a Palestinian police force was part of the 1978 Camp David agreements, and Mr. Rabin gave guarded reaffirmation of the idea last week.

The hard-line opposition to Mr. Rabin has hammered at his "concessions," with Benyamin Netanyahu, the newly elected leader of the Likud Party, and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who led the party to defeat last year, joining in condemnation. There also have been regular demonstrations against Mr. Rabin outside his home in Jerusalem.

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