Israeli, Palestinian officials discuss peace process

Talks latest low-key effort to re-establish contacts

November 28, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - This is what the Israeli-Palestinian peace process looks like today:

Two men, one of them the speaker of Israel's parliament, the other the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, sit at a table in a hotel and talk about the importance of their talking to each other more often.

Yesterday's unexpected meeting between Israel's Avraham Burg and the Palestinian Authority's Ahmed Qurei, who is better known as Abu Ala, involved little beyond a handshake and an exchange of pleasantries. But the important thing was that the men had indeed talked.

"Negotiating is more important than anything," Abu Ala said. "It is our responsibility to make it worthwhile."

Burg said his counterpart "has very difficult arguments against me. I have very difficult arguments against him. But the only place we can present our misunderstandings and disagreements is around the table, not around funerals."

Their meeting was the latest of several low-key attempts by the two sides to re-establish meaningful contacts. The off-and-on-again talks between midlevel officials are also in line with vows by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel will seek to bypass Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Yossi Beilin, a prominent member of Israel's Labor Party, has been meeting with Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo. The former chief of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service, Ami Ayalon, has met with the Palestine Liberation Organization's Jerusalem representative, Sari Nusseibeh.

There is no shortage of subjects, which are said to include the status of Jerusalem in a final peace settlement and the future of Palestinian refugees and their demand for a "right of return" to lands that they or their families left generations ago.

In more formal settings, the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia are trying to work out a roadmap toward creation of a Palestinian state, which would require concessions from both sides, including Palestinian reforms that would curb Arafat's powers.

Separately, officials from Arafat's Fatah political faction are meeting in Egypt with leaders of the Hamas militant group to persuade them to end suicide attacks - talks that may also be aimed at repairing a rift between the two armed camps.

And Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, a member of the PLO executive committee, has tried to persuade Palestinians to end the armed conflict. Last month, speaking to activists in Gaza, he noted the effect of the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and called the uprising a disaster.

"I call on Palestinians to say enough," Mazen told the group, according to the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, which published a 20-page transcript this week of the meeting. "People can no longer endure the burden of life under these circumstances."

Mazen's comments reflected a growing effort by Palestinian moderates to end the conflict. The moderates have been unsuccessful, however, in convincing militant groups, including an offshoot of Fatah, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

These loosely linked peace efforts are taking place amid a constant threat of attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants and a stepped-up Israeli military presence in the West Bank. Army officers say their troops have arrested dozens of suspected militants, including at least 10 suicide bombers preparing attacks this week.

On Tuesday night, two Palestinian militants were killed in an explosion in the West Bank city of Jenin, which Palestinians blamed on Israel. Yesterday, Israeli troops in Nablus shot and killed a Palestinian drummer as he marched through the streets to announce the Ramadan fast. Meanwhile, large numbers of Israeli police patrolled Jerusalem after warning that a suicide bomber had infiltrated the city.

Burg and Abu Ala said they want to try to rebuild a relationship between the two sides. In 1999, Burg invited Abu Ala to the Israeli parliament. Abu Ala did not address elected officials but did speak with reporters. In January, Abu Ala returned the invitation and asked Burg to address the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, but the Israeli army wouldn't allow Burg to cross a checkpoint.

Burg and Abu Ala said they have maintained contact, but they divulged little about what they discussed at their latest meeting. Burg said he pressed for an end to Palestinian suicide attacks and said he was angry by the Palestinian Authority's inability or unwillingness to prevent them.

Abu Ala said he was upset with the Israeli army's policy of assassinating militants and stressed that as long as the Israeli military occupation continues, Palestinian police are incapable of restoring order.

"The Palestinian Authority is not able to stop suicide bombings 100 percent," he told reporters in Arabic. In English he restated a now-familiar condemnation of killing civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli.

"We are under occupation," Abu Ala said. "We cannot achieve peace with military power on our land. There can be no security as long as one tank is on our doorstep."

Burg called on both sides to "defeat the religious extremism and despair in the region." But "the future is much more sad and pessimistic" than it was two years ago, he said. "Whether in times of conflict, pain and bloodshed, or in times of tranquillity and peace, we should still negotiate."

One sign of how far the process has deteriorated came when Burg asked his colleague a simple question: "I asked Abu Ala where the Palestinian peace camp is.

"He said, `At this meeting.'"

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