Israeli-Palestinian talks show hope of reviving peace process Return of more territory, however, will require time and persuasion

July 18, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A much-anticipated meeting between key Israeli and Palestinian officials set for tomorrow may put the deadlocked Middle East peace process back on track, but a final decision on returning land to the Palestinians won't occur immediately.

First, Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, a key opponent of a proposed withdrawal of Israeli troops from 13 percent of West Bank land, is on a 10-day trip to China.

Second, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has yet to convince his backers in the nationalist, religious movement that a second withdrawal won't jeopardize the security of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Tomorrow's meeting in Tel Aviv between Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Mahmoud Abbas, a top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was announced yesterday by a ministry spokesman.

At the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Netanyahu gave the go-ahead last week for Mordechai to meet with Palestinian leaders to try to break the 16-month deadlock in the peace process.

The meeting may not end the stalemate immediately, but it's proof that the process is alive, according to Barry Rubin, an analyst at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Illan University.

"We're moving gradually toward a second disengagement. It may take another one or two months. [But] this could advance it," he said.

Rubin believes Mordechai's involvement in the process bodes well. A former Army chief of staff and a moderate in Netanyahu's hard-line Cabinet, he has been one of the most outspoken proponents of concluding the second phase of troop withdrawal. "Mordechai is the alternative in the context of the government," said Rubin. "He is a powerful, respected figure. Bibi is losing support in the party. He has huge credibility problems. Mordechai, raging from his personal belief and his responsibility [as defense minister], has been critical and a strong supporter of withdrawal. The more involved he becomes, [the more] his personal interest gets tied up with making progress."

The issue centers on the amount of land to be returned to Palestinian control in this second redeployment of Israeli troops from areas of the West Bank occupied since Israel's victory in the 1967 war. As part of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Israel agreed to return land in three phases.

In the first phase, the Gaza Strip and the major cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Jericho and Tulkarm were returned under the previous, Labor-led governments of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

A U.S.-sponsored proposal would return 13.1 percent of land to the Palestinians in this round. But Sharon has threatened to bring down the government if Netanyahu returns more than 9 percent, saying that to give back more would endanger Israel's security.

The Palestinians have accepted the U.S. 13 percent proposal and said they won't take any less.

Since his election in 1996 on a pledge to slow down the land-for-peace initiative, Netanyahu has conditioned the return of more land on the Palestinian authority's fighting terrorism, confiscating illegal weapons, extraditing terrorists to Israel and amending the Palestinian National Charter passages that call for Israel's demise.

The Palestinians have argued that they are combating terrorism and long ago removed the offensive sections from the charter.

A terrorist attack has not occurred in Israel in 10 months. Ahmed Qurei, the president of the Palestinian Legislative Council and negotiator of the Oslo accords, attributed the respite to "the seriousness of Palestinian leaders, the Palestinian authority and the efficiency of the Palestinian police."

But Netanyahu and government hard-liners continue to insist that Arafat's government is not doing all that it can to dismantle the military wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the groups responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in 1996 and last year.

"If Arafat continues with his policy of only taking and not giving, I think nothing will change," said Nissan Slomiansky, a member of parliament who represents the nationalist, religious settler movement.

According to Israeli commentator Ben Caspit, "a fierce battle" is being waged in the government.

Caspit, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv, wrote yesterday that coalition members who support the settler movement oppose a troop removal that would sacrifice portions of a major highway that affords Jewish settlers a direct and safe route across the West Bank.

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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