Palestinians Wary as Rabin Builds New Israeli Image

Renewed peace effort sharpens need to heal factional differences

AS the Middle East peace process gathers momentum with US Secretary of State James Baker III's regional tour, the Palestinians find themselves forced to look three ways at the same time to keep their balance on the negotiating tightrope.

They must look in front of them at a new Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin, who is strengthened by the promise of closer relations with Washington. They must look behind them to Syria, where President Hafez al-Assad is visibly nervous that the Palestinians will be tempted to take the autonomy they are being offered, regardless of whether he recovers the Golan Heights. And they must look within themselves, to heal bitter dissension in Palestinian ranks.

Mr. Rabin starts with an advantage. "Before doing anything he has won the first battle - public relations," says Riyad Malki, an opponent of the peace process. "All doors are open to him."

The Israeli prime minister appears to have convinced Mr. Baker of his good faith by freezing contracts for new Jewish-settlement construction in the occupied territories. Where Washington once backed the Palestinian demand for a total halt to settlement, "severe restrictions might now be acceptable," worries Palestinian negotiating team member Ghassan al-Khatib.

The Palestinians say this is the kind of tactic that they may see again. "Rabin is going to give us half-solutions that boost his image abroad, and put us in a very critical situation," predicts Ali Jarbawi, a political analyst at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

This time, the Palestinians appear resigned that Washington will grant Israel the controversial $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle new Russian immigrants, even without a total settlement freeze.

Having earlier threatened that the Palestinians would withdraw from the peace process if the loan guarantees were offered without a freeze, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi indicated July 20 she would be satisfied merely with evidence that none of the US-guaranteed money was being spent in the territories.

But Palestinian strategists say they hope for something in return for this concession, playing on Baker's evident desire to see tangible results in the peace process before the United States presidential elections. They also hope that they can turn the new warmth in Israel's relations with the US, and Rabin's positive international standing, to their advantage.

`RABIN has an interest in maintaining his new image in the world," argues Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of Passia, a Palestinian think tank. "He cannot afford to change it." That might offer the Palestinians some room to press the new Israeli government to soften the day-to-day realities of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When they met Baker July 20, the Palestinians took a step in that direction.

In a memorandum setting out their demands, they urged him to pressure the Israelis into concrete actions such as releasing political prisoners, ending the use of torture, and lifting censorship - as well as halting settlements.

"We cannot depend on the negativism of the other side any more," says Dr. Jarbawi, "and Baker is telling us that we have to be positive, to meet Rabin halfway. We cannot say no. But I think there is room for saying, `Yes, but.' On that level we can start turning [down] the pressure, not in full, but alleviating it."

And while former Premier Yitzhak Shamir addressed the Palestinians only in the formal framework of the peace process, Rabin has a range of communication channels open to him. Outside the talks themselves, he can use his left-wing coalition partner Meretz, whose leaders have a long history of contacts with the Palestinians; he is widely rumored to have met secretly with Jordan's King Hussein soon after his election last month; and he intends to repeal the law against Israelis meeting officials of the Pale stine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Looking ahead to their negotiations with the Israelis, the Palestinians are anxious to ensure that the arrangements for limited autonomy in the occupied territories, seen as an interim stage, include the shape of the final settlement of their status.

"There must be a linkage between the interim phase and the final settlement," insists Dr. Abdul-Hadi, "because without it the Palestinians outside would be in such an awkward position they could not afford not to interfere.

"For the [Palestinian] diaspora," including the leadership of the PLO, "the interim agreement offers nothing," he says. "They must be reassured that autonomy is not against them, that it will not be the final status quo."

Meanwhile, as Palestinian leaders from the occupied territories pack their bags for Damascus, where they will be attending the Arab foreign ministers' meeting July 24, they face strong pressure from Syria.

Rabin's oft-repeated intention to make Palestinian autonomy top priority, while leaving talks with Syria on the Golan Heights until later, has sparked fears in Damascus that the Palestinians might be tempted to sign a separate peace with Israel.

"The Syrians will be putting pressure on, in the hope that the Palestinians will agree not to sign anything without a consensus from their Arab partners," says Dr. Malki, local leader of the Syrian backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine faction of the PLO.

The Palestinian negotiating team is divided over how much heed to pay the Syrians, according to sources close to the delegation. Some argue in favor of reaching an autonomy deal as soon as possible to end the Israeli occupation, while others caution that Syria must not be allowed to feel abandoned, in case the Palestinians need Damascus's aid at a future date.

More immediately, however, Palestinian leaders acknowledge that they must unify their own camp if they are to enter serious negotiations about the future.

Disagreements between PLO loyalists and the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas have escalated into violent street clashes in the Gaza Strip, while within the PLO, factional and personal struggles are on the increase, according to PLO insiders.

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