Israel, PLO break deadlock in talks

January 07, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestinians have broken the latest deadlock of their negotiations but now predict weeks of wrangling before starting the Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

That withdrawal was supposed to start Dec. 13, and the two parties had once seemed just a day away from agreement on terms to begin the departure of Israeli troops.

But as the two sides head for the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba to resume the talks Sunday or Monday, it appears that the interruption has set back previous progress and left a cloud of mistrust.

"I think a week more or a week less [in the negotiations] is not as important as to have the right solution to the many complicated problems," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday.

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization jointly announced yesterday a resumption of talks, after a week of dispute over whether they had an agreement at their last talks in Cairo Dec. 30. Israel said then they had settled most outstanding issues; the PLO denied it.

To resume negotiations, they have finessed the issue by calling the Cairo results an "understanding" that will be "the basis for further talks."

"I don't say this is a victory for us or defeat for the Arabs. I hope that every party will draw the necessary lessons," Mr. Peres said.

One lesson Israel apparently has drawn is to get any agreement in writing. In Cairo, Mr. Peres apparently thought he had an oral agreement with the Palestinian negotiators, only to later hear PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat denounce it.

The two sides are divided over who will control the borders between Jericho, the Gaza Strip and the neighboring Arab countries -- Jordan and Egypt, respectively. They dispute the size of the Jericho region from which Israel is to withdraw, and the arrangements for the Israeli army to guard Jewish settlements.

After the controversy flared last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said he would not trust any agreement that was not written and signed. And he repeated yesterday the threat to withdraw previous Israeli promises if the PLO wavers on the understandings he said were reached in Cairo. If the Palestinians back away from those understandings, "they will not see that we are committed to what we said," the prime minister vowed.

Israel and the PLO signed a declaration of principles in Washington Sept. 13 calling for a pullback of Israeli authority from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ruled by the Israeli military since the 1967 war.

The first step was to be withdrawal from the West Bank town of Jericho and the teeming Gaza Strip, starting last month and ending by April 13. But the euphoria of the Washington signing has faded into glum pessimism as both sides have interpreted the document in their own fashion.

Israel has indicated it may ignore the deadlines set out in the document. And it has suggested that the most important stages of the agreement -- establishing Palestinian autonomy throughout the West Bank and negotiating the ultimate status of the territories-- are dependent on its judgment of the success of the Gaza and Jericho steps.

The PLO has chosen to consider the agreement as the approval for ultimate statehood. Its demand, for example, that Palestinians working under a Palestinian flag control border crossings to Egypt and Jordan is designed to advance the vision of a Palestinian state and is particularly infuriating to Israel.

Mr. Rabin said again yesterday that Israel will not give up control of those borders.

"Israel defense forces will be deployed all along the Jordan River and the western coast of the Dead Sea, all along the line between Egypt and the Gaza Strip," he said.

Israel also balks at extending the borders of Jericho to the Jordan River, just a few miles away, to prevent Palestinians from controlling any section of the border with Jordan.

The Washington accord called for Israeli withdrawal from the "Jericho area." Israel has chosen to define that as a small, 12-square-mile plot enclosing little more than the city of Jericho; the PLO has claimed a 135-square-mile region including the banks of the Jordan River.

Editorials in the Hebrew and Arabic press have turned angry, reflecting the loss of the spirit of cooperation evident in September.

"The PLO won't be blackmailed," groused the Arabic An-Nahar. "Is Israel trying to avoid withdrawal?"

But the daily Hebrew Yediot Ahronot took some optimism from the flurry of faxed drafts and telephone calls that resolved the latest deadlock. Only a few months ago such contacts were illegal, the paper noted. This is "decisive testimony to the great distance we have covered, they and us."

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