Delay in Israeli-PLO Talks On Security And Self-Rule Threatens Next Peace Phase

PALESTINE Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat thinks it will take a week. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is more cautious. His aides talk in terms of another month.

These contradictory Palestinian and Israeli estimates of how far they are from an agreement on the first stage of their peace accord serve to highlight one indisputable fact: In the best case, the negotiations will have taken twice as long as they were meant to.

But that delay, and the difficulties that have arisen almost daily in the talks shaping Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho, are now feeding doubts about how - and even whether - the autonomous regime will be extended to the rest of the West Bank.

Officially, that second-phase step is still planned for July, following a complete Israeli military withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza by the middle of April. But there is now ``no chance that the timetable can be kept,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team.

``The problems in Gaza are multiplied a hundredfold in the West Bank,'' adds Joseph Alpher, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, at Tel Aviv University. ``If Gaza and Jericho take months [to agree], we can assume that harder problems will take far longer.''

After 14 weeks of arduous negotiations in five locations, including two days of talks last weekend between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the PLO and Israel are understood to have ironed out most of their differences over the control of border crossing points from Jordan to Jericho and from Egypt to Gaza, and over security for Jewish settlers in Gaza.

The area around Jericho that will come under Palestinian authority is still in dispute, as are a myriad of details of the whole accord, which Israeli officials say could take weeks to resolve.

That the talks have been lengthy, running into ``thousands of questions that we had never thought of,'' as Mr. Rabin acknowledged, has not come as a surprise to some observers.

``The issues are very complicated, and the nature of the solutions is very complicated,'' says Dr. Khatib. ``On top of that, when they negotiated the Declaration of Principles [in Oslo last year], the two leaderships wanted a political victory by any means, and didn't care much for the details.''

When negotiators come to implement the second phase of the autonomy plan, he says, ``some issues are going to be even more complicated, such as economic questions that have not even been discussed yet.''

The bitterest disputes, though, Palestinian and Israeli analysts agree, will center on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which will not come under Palestinian authority during the five-year interim period of autonomy.

``The hardest issue will be to demarcate the settlements' borders,'' predicts Mamdouh al-Akr, another Palestinian negotiator. ``Are we talking just about areas that are built up? Or areas that have been zoned for building? Or about all state land?''

His concern is that the reported Jericho plan - limiting the autonomous area to the town itself, and allowing residents safe passage to certain nearby sites - will be taken as a precedent for the whole West Bank. ``We would end up like an octopus, living in ghettos,'' Dr. al-Akr complains.

The location of the settlements, scattered widely around the West Bank, ``was the strategy of previous right-wing governments ... to prevent a territorial solution'' of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Mr. Alpher says.

The Declaration of Principles gives Israel the right to defend each of the 129 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the precedent reportedly to be set in the Gaza Strip is not encouraging for the Palestinians.

The bulk of the Gaza settlements are expected to be treated not individually but as a geographical bloc, off limits to Palestinian police. The isolated settlement of Netzarim, meanwhile, is to be linked to Israel by a special road to be controlled by the Israeli Army.

If that were to be the case in the West Bank, blocs of settlements could gobble up huge areas of Palestinian land, and special provisions for every isolated settlement would severely limit the redeployment of Israeli soldiers. Such an outcome would be unacceptable to the PLO.

``I expect the second phase negotiations will get bogged down,'' predicts Alpher, as the deadline approaches for negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories, which are due to start two years after the launch of the Gaza-Jericho plan.

``I think it will become plain that no agreement is possible before the two-year deadline,'' Alpher adds, ``and both sides might decide that it would be easier to go straight for a final settlement'' instead of negotiating the nature of autonomy.

Although Rabin is known to oppose such a path, because the highly contentious status of Jerusalem would be high on the agenda, Arafat may already be planning for it, some say.

``Arafat doesn't know when, or if, there will be a second stage,'' says Yoel Marcus, political analyst for the daily Haaretz newspaper. ``So he is going for as much as he can get now in the hope that he will have a ministate in the meantime, even if the second stage negotiations take longer than expected.''

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