Israeli-PLO negotiations to resume

December 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will try again today to break a deadlock that has frozen the start of a plan to begin Arab autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Both sides predict that a solution will be found, but so far it has been unexpectedly elusive.

The deadlock, which delayed the envisaged start of Israeli troop withdrawals last week, is the result of a collision of differing expectations and hardening strategies by both sides.

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are both pressed by extremists who feel their side's negotiators already have given too much.

Both sides now have dug in their heels, abandoning the spirit of compromise that produced their historic agreement Sept. 13.

"It is regrettable what the Israelis are doing," PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat told reporters in Tunis, Tunisia, yesterday.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," said a chief Israeli negotiator, Uri Savir.

The disagreements involve details of how many square miles and who will man checkposts and where military jeeps may run -- all matters of logistics that seem ripe for practical compromise.

The hang-up is that these questions have important symbolic implications, which neither side is willing to concede.

The Palestinians want to signal that they will eventually have a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israelis want it clear that they will continue to control the area being given over to Palestinian autonomy.

"There is a basic gap in positions. Yasser Arafat thinks that this is a process to establish a Palestinian state," said Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. "We are talking only about a transitional period of autonomy to test whether coexistence is possible."

Neither position was settled in the simply worded agreement signed on the White House lawn Sept. 13. Now both sides are trying to claim ground in the loopholes. It has become a tug-of-war of symbols.

A meeting between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Arafat in Cairo on Dec. 12 failed to break the impasse, as did two days of secret meetings last weekend in Oslo, Norway. Negotiators are to resume their attempt today in Paris.

The most vexing problem is the bridges. These are border crossings between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and between Jericho and Jordan, now run by Israeli soldiers.

Crossing those borders has been one of the most infuriating exercises of the occupation for Palestinians. Arabs seeking to visit families scattered across Jordan and Egypt are subject to harsh restrictions, long interrogations, humiliation and arbitrary rejections at the bridge.

The Palestinians see it as a vital symbol that people crossing those bridges meet a Palestinian official, not an Israeli. The official would carry a double meaning: The occupation is over, and the Palestinian areas are a quasi-state with borders.

The Palestinians have staked this out as a non-negotiable point. The PLO Executive Committee "gave directions to its delegation . . . to reject all partial or nominal solutions," said a statement from the PLO yesterday.

For precisely the same symbolic reasons, Israel will not relinquish control. To the symbolism, Israelis add the argument of security: Because there are no physical borders around Jericho, letting someone into that West Bank town is like allowing them into Israel.

Anyone crossing the border into Jericho, they point out, could be in Tel Aviv in an hour. By giving up control of the bridges, Israel would be giving up control of who comes into the country. Israelis warn there would be a flood of returning Palestinian refugees.

"For us, external security is the central thing," Mr. Rabin told the Knesset last week. "It is unthinkable that the Israeli army will not be deployed along the border with Egypt and Jordan. It's unthinkable we won't have control."

The proposed compromises so far have not worked. Palestinians suggested having an international force at the border and said Israelis could watch the bridge with electronic monitors. Israel has proposed letting Palestinian officials accompany Israelis at the bridge, with the final say resting with Israelis.

The second sticking point -- the size of Jericho -- could be more easily compromised, officials on both sides say. Yet that, too, has symbolic implications hard to overcome.

The Gaza Strip is defined by bristling barbed wire fences and clear boundaries. But Jericho is just a sprawling area three miles off the main road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

The Palestinians argue that Israel should withdraw from all of the Jericho district mapped in 1924 by the British -- an area of some 140 square miles that includes the banks of the Jordan River and the hills to the west. That area also includes about 17 Jewish settlements.

Israel has countered with an offer to withdraw from about 20 square miles, a tighter boundary around the center of the town of some 15,000 people. Palestinians find the Israeli offer the makings of a ghetto in a tight Israeli noose.

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