WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM — The search for peace in the Middle East appears to have reached its most critical phase since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly opened an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem and sparked four days of Israeli-Palestinian street combat in September.
The root problem: Each side may now be filled with doubt about the other's intent.
Many Israelis, for their part, found their sense of security deeply shaken by the violence this fall. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's actions - particularly on the sensitive issue of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank - continue to feed a Palestinian perception that he's not serious about pursuing the peace process.
A frustrated Washington has thus begun openly criticizing the Netanyahu government, albeit in mild terms.
But Israel ignored President Clinton's Dec. 16 jab at its plan to expand settlements, saying the US has a misunderstanding of Israeli policy.
"The situation in the Middle East is dangerous," says Robert Lieber, a Georgetown University Mideast expert. "There are problems on both sides ... but clearly the Netanyahu government has gotten off to a very shaky start."
The latest round of Israeli- Palestinian frustrations began last week when Israel's Cabinet revived subsidies and tax breaks for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Cabinet action came in the wake of an ambush slaying of two Jewish settlers.
This prodded Washington to publicly scold the Israeli government, after six months in which the US administration had largely kept its mouth shut about Netanyahu's policies.
By reinstating settlement incentives, Mr. Clinton complained that Netanyahu appears to be trying to unilaterally resolve an issue Israel earlier agreed to settle in talks with the Palestinians: what the future map of the West Bank will look like.
Not that Clinton's press conference description of settlements as "an obstacle to peace" represented the most stinging rebuke on the subject ever delivered by a US chief executive. When Jimmy Carter was president, settlement activity by the Likud government of the time was called "illegal" and "illegitimate" by the White House.
The next step, Clinton said Dec. 17, should be final agreement on the long-awaited and long-promised partial Israeli pullback from the West Bank town of Hebron. "We need to get the Hebron agreement over and behind us and go on to other issues," Clinton said.
Those "other issues," however, are so-called "final status" subjects. They deal with the future of both Jerusalem and the Jewish settlers themselves, among other things. Settling these issues could involve more difficult negotiations than any that have yet occurred in the long decades of the Mideast peace process.
Against this background, Hebron talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed this week. At issue is a rundown town of 100,000 Palestinians and 500 Israelis, to be divided into four parts Arab and one part Jewish, with one religious site holy to both stuck in between.
What's taking so long?
The emerging reality is that the Hebron crisis isn't so much about Hebron, but about to the future settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself through a final-status agreement.
Virtually all the specifics about a transfer of power in Hebron have been agreed upon by negotiators, and talks are not deadlocked over minor issues like whether or not to open a road.
Rather, the big picture roadblocks are these: Before agreeing to a deal on Hebron, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat wants Israel to commit to a timetable for completing the three additional troop redeployments in the West Bank as outlined in the Oslo II peace deal; Netanyahu insists that the talks instead move directly to final-status negotiations.
Arafat, who fears Netanyahu will not implement the accords he reluctantly inherited, wants a signed letter of intent that Israel will turn over more land to the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli view
Netanyahu, who is usually presumed to be trying to slow the process, may actually be trying to hasten it so that he can sketch a peace map that would incorporate his party's views opposing Palestinian statehood.
According to the agreements, Israel was to have started the first of the three troop pullbacks in September, and to have finished the third by June 1997. But the deal doesn't specify how extensive those pullbacks should be.
Also, if things had gone as scheduled, the parties would already be in final-status talks discussing the hottest hot-button issues: Jerusalem, water, refugees, settlements, and borders.
But Netanyahu dislikes the prospect of giving up so much land before getting to the final- status table. Even some who are more dovish than he think that would leave Israel devoid of major bargaining chips.
While Netanyahu may be hoping to limit Palestinian autonomy to urban areas, completing the three troop redeployments would lay de facto groundwork for creation of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian view
As the Palestinians read the Oslo agreement, Israel will only be in control of settlers and army bases by the time final-status talks get under way. The 3 percent of West Bank land in which the Palestinians have total control, they believe, should increased to at least 75 percent.
With nebulous wording about who gets what, the Israeli reading of the agreement does not include nearly so much land. And to the current Israeli regime, when talking percentages what matters is people, not land mass.
"When we leave Hebron, 98 percent of Palestinians in this country will be under Palestinian rule," says David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's media director. Netanyahu has apparently come around to the idea that Israel does not forever want to rule over another people, but he is by no means convinced that an autonomy need be contiguous, much less an independent state.
It is for this reason that Israel's reinstating of economic incentives to settlers last week is creating such a stir. The move gives benefits like cheap mortgages to encourage Jews to move to settlements all over the territories, including those that Palestinians expect Jews to eventually leave.
Netanyahu says he opposes Palestinian statehood, but he has not officially rejected any final settlement outright. Refraining from outlining any particular vision, he says he instead wants to seek "broad national consensus" on the issue and study it further.
He has also suggested he might try to model Palestinian autonomy on Andorra or Puerto Rico. The Palestinians, however, say they rule out quasi-independence and will not accept being put into "Bantustans" like the failed South African model.