A Handshake No More: Israel, PLO Still at Odds

ONE year after Israelis and Palestinians began implementing a five-year autonomy agreement, hopes are fading on both sides that the accord will lead to a lasting peace between the two peoples.

The five-year interim agreement on a phased Palestinian autonomy is already running a year behind schedule [see box] and appears to be locked in a spiral of reaction and counterreaction.

While the first phase of the agreement -- including the holding of Palestinian elections and the pull-back of Israeli troops on the West Bank -- is way behind schedule, the thornier issues reserved for final status negotiations, due to begin next May, are dominating the troubled accord.

These include the final boundaries and status of a Palestinian entity, the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, and the position of some 140,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

''The negotiations remain locked in a vicious circle,'' says Ziad Abu Zayyad, a prominent Palestinian lawyer and journalist.

''The Palestinians are angry and frustrated ... and the Israelis are more vulnerable than ever,'' he says.

Expectations dampened

The 20-month-old agreement, which unloosed a tide of euphoria when it was signed on the lawn of the White House in September 1993, has failed to meet the expectations of most Palestinians and Israelis.

Western diplomats say that the last hope for the troubled Israel-PLO accord is that negotiators manage to reach a workable agreement on a date to hold Palestinian elections and to pull back Israeli troops on the occupied West Bank before a revised July 1 deadline.

''If there is no agreement by the July 1 deadline, I don't think that it is going to be possible to sustain this process,'' says a senior Western diplomat close to the troubled talks.

The promises of land-for-peace, Palestinian elections, and the pull-back of Israeli forces on the West Bank so far have not been realized.

Instead, Palestinians are reeling under a series of land seizures for Jewish expansion in both the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and are still subject to continual document checks and arbitrary security actions associated with Israeli occupation on the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin talks more of physical separation and fortified boundaries between Israel and the West Bank. Less is heard about the economic cooperation envisaged by the accord's architects.

Western donors have come forward with only $240 million of the $825 million pledged because of concerns over the lack of accountability and financial controls in PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), a nominated self-rule council responsible for administering the Palestinian autonomy areas.

Jobs lost to closures

Intended as the initial showcase for the phased autonomy, the Gaza Strip has been hobbled by repeated security closures by Israel.

Unemployment has risen to over 50 percent; tens of thousands of Palestinians have lost their jobs in Israel because of the closures. Development and construction projects have almost ground to a halt.

''Nothing has changed here. The life of the people is even more difficult than before,'' says Col. Mohamed Dahlan, influential head of Mr. Arafat's Preventative Security department, told the Monitor recently.

In addition, Palestinians say there has been no effort by Israel to correct the injustices of the past. Only some 1,000 of the 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners have been freed. Land confiscations, demolition of homes, arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in detention continue.

Israelis, who had hoped for a peace dividend from the accord, feel more vulnerable than ever following a wave of suicide bombings carried out by Islamic militants opposed to Arafat's rule.

Since the accord was signed, some 124 Israelis have been killed in attacks -- more than at any time since the state of Israel was created in 1948. In the same period, 204 Palestinians have been killed, fewer than in previous years.

''The political foundation of the agreement was that a Palestinian police force would be more effective against Islamic fundamentalists than the Israeli Defense Force [IDF] was,'' says Dore Gold of the Jaffa Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

''It does not appear that Arafat has the strength -- or feels the necessity -- to achieve this goal,'' he says.

Many Palestinians also feel betrayed by their leaders who have failed to turn the accord into a better life. The only people who appear to have benefited from the autonomy are the 40,000 PA employees, 17,000 of whom are police and security personnel.

As disillusionment has deepened on both sides, Mr. Rabin has resorted increasingly to security measures that critics say have cut across the spirit of the accord and prevented Arafat from delivering benefits for Palestinians.

Arafat, who has begun cracking down on Islamic extremists, has backed off from an open confrontation with the militants for fear of sparking a civil war among Palestinians and further undermining his eroding power base.

Rabin, whose popularity has plunged among Israelis because he failed to improve security, balks at extending Palestinian self-rule and allowing Palestinian elections that would give Arafat the legitimacy he so badly needs.

How to rescue accord

In the most recent issue of the quarterly Palestine-Israel Journal, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals agree that the peace accord negotiated in secret in Oslo in 1993 is facing a severe crisis, but they differ on the measures needed to rescue it.

Ron Pundik, an Israeli academic who co-initiated the Oslo negotiations, says that the process needs to be speeded up, with both sides taking decisive steps now in order to prevent an endless war.

''We need to capitalize on the momentum gained to date in order to create irreversible facts before the 1996 [Israeli] elections,'' he wrote in the Palestine-Israel Journal.

Critics of the accord argue that the only way forward is to move now to final status negotiations and leapfrog the first phase.

Islamic militants opposed to Arafat and right-wing Israeli groups want to see the Oslo peace process scrapped and new negotiations begin.

Supporters of the accord point to its achievements: the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, the Israel-Jordan peace accord, and an improvement in Israel's international relations.

But both critics and supporters of the accord agree urgent action is needed to rescue it.

''Unless we can have Palestinian elections before campaigning for Israel's elections begins early next year, then the agreement with the Palestinians is reversible,'' says Alon Liel, director-general of Israel's economics and planning ministry.

Mr. Liel was expressing a growing fear that if Rabin's Labour Party coalition is defeated by the right-wing Likud Party in elections scheduled for November 1996, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could suffer a major setback.

''If Palestinian elections were held [before Israeli elections], it would change the whole content of the autonomy,'' he says, adding that only elections could provide the necessary legitimacy and stability in the autonomous areas.

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