Israeli-PLO peace talks in disarray

January 03, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians remain stalled at the starting line trying to put into effect their peace accord.

Their negotiations were in disarray yesterday as both sides leveled accusations and Israel wavered over whether to attend further meetings this week.

"Let them sweat," Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was said to have told the Israeli Cabinet yesterday.

Jordan joined the fray, demanding that the Palestinians coordinate their plans with Jordan by tomorrow. King Hussein said it was the "last chance" for cooperation with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

King Hussein said that unless there was coordination, he would pursue a separate peace plan with Israel, according to reports from Amman.

Israel had promised to withdraw starting Dec. 13 from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, both occupied by Israeli troops since 1967. It did not happen because the two sides argued over the details of that withdrawal.

An apparent resolution of the details reached in Cairo, Egypt, last week collapsed under mutual recriminations over what was agreed upon.

"This is very disappointing and frustrating," said Yossi Sarid, a Cabinet member who attended the negotiations last week.

The Jordanian demand adds to the complications for Mr. Arafat. King Hussein met Thursday with Mr. Arafat, an old nemesis who once tried to take control of Jordan.

The king has demanded that the PLO coordinate with him in negotiations with Israel. He reportedly is particularly vexed at regular references by the Palestinians to a future confederation with Jordan.

But their meeting apparently failed. King Hussein said on a state television broadcast yesterday: "We told him it was the last chance from our side, and after that let each side carry the responsibility on its own."

Israel has long sought to negotiate separately with the Arab parties, feeling it could play one against the other to reach better terms.

Mr. Rabin issued a threat yesterday that Israel would not return to talks with the Palestinians scheduled for today in Taba, Egypt, unless the PLO honored the understandings he said were reached last week.

If those understandings are tossed aside, he said, all the negotiations would have to be reopened.

"If they try to undermine . . . what was concluded, then everything is open. And the question will be asked, why reach conclusions on such high level on both sides?" he told Israel Army Radio.

But the Palestinians disputed Israel's version of the understandings and said they had not approved the document brandished by Israel after last week's talks.

"I don't know which paper Prime Minister Rabin is talking about," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian's chief negotiator. He said the Israelis prepared minutes of the meetings, but "the next day, we got a different draft from the Israelis. One wonders which agreement [they] are talking about."

Much of this appeared to be a matter of jockeying for better position. Even Mr. Rabin, in interviews over the weekend, acknowledged that the "negotiations . . . look like a Middle Eastern bazaar. Don't take them too seriously at any given moment."

But there is danger the positions taken by the parties could lead to a collapse of the deal.

The arguments are over the first stage of the historic declaration signed on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, witnessed by Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat.

Israel promised to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho by April 13, after which it would pull back from populated areas in the rest of the West Bank. Under the plan, a Palestinian Council would be elected to administer those areas, and negotiations for a final arrangement would be concluded in five years.

Negotiators have clashed over the area of Jericho from which Israeli troops are to withdraw. They disagree over who will control the borders between Jericho and Jordan and between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. And they have not settled on the scope of the presence of Israeli troops at Jewish settlements.

"Arguments of this kind are not unexpected. they certainly cause heartaches and stomach aches," acknowledged Yossi Beilin, deputy Israeli foreign minister and one of the negotiators.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met last week in Cairo with the negotiators and announced afterward that they had resolved the impasse. But his announcement was quickly challenged by the Palestinians.

Israel then received two faxes from the PLO, which Israel characterized as a reneging by Mr. Arafat.

"What Arafat did afterward was cancel the agreement," Mr. Beilin complained. "If the basis to [another] meeting is Arafat's demands, it will not take place."

Mr. Peres, in interviews yesterday, seemed publicly surprised by the dispute over what was agreed.

"I . . . asked the head of the Palestinian delegation, Abu Mazen, 'Does this paper which we are presenting reflect an understanding between the two sides?' " Mr. Peres related. "The answer was positive."

But Palestinian officials present contended that Mr. Peres' announcement was a "bluff" and that the paper reflected only Israel's position.

Mr. Arafat chafed over the weekend that the Israeli promises of withdrawal have been hollow.

"The Israeli position contains elements that will turn the Gaza Strip and Jericho into an Indian reservation, a Bantustan," he complained in a letter to one of the negotiators. In a later interview with Monte Carlo radio, he said, "We meant a withdrawal, not a humiliation."

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