Strong-Arm US Tactics Push Peace
AT MIDEAST TALKS
American officials here describe a business-like atmosphere in the marathon meetings trying to push through a deal on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron.Skip to next paragraph
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But most business meetings don't go on in secret at 3 a.m. - as this weekend's summit did. And some participants say there has also been unproductive bickering in months of talks aimed at restarting the peace accords to grant Palestinian self-rule.
Interviews with the participants closest to the negotiations paint a picture of creeping progress and myriad frustrations.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders bemoan how much they are compromising - and how they have lost support from their public.
Meanwhile, American mediators are being drawn ever deeper into the minutiae of the peace process - and having to strong-arm the participants into making even tiny compromises.
"For hours, it's just: 'Do you want to implement the agreement?' 'No, I don't.' 'Do you want to implement the agreement?' 'No, I don't. I want to do so and so,' " says Palestinian Liberation Organization negotiator and peace accords architect Ahmed Qreia, known as Abu Ala.
"There is no logic to the negotiations," he says. "We are running for four months in the same circle, and we are tired."
So is US peace envoy Dennis Ross, whose every trip to the region seems to grow into two weeks rather than its planned two days.
And the man who has become the de facto secretary of state in the Middle East since Warren Christopher announced his resignation faces the task of managing the give and take of the peace process.
US officials here say the talks have consisted mostly of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing the giving - by backing down from many of his earlier demands to alter the accords - and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's attempts to take a little more before the signing is done.
The arm-twisting that Mr. Ross and other US officials here are expected to do is no easy feat, with Israelis and Palestinians insisting they've given all they can afford to give without losing face at home.
If there is a logic to the negotiations, the American mediators' methods might best be described as Socratic, constantly quizzing and probing in search of finding common ground.
When the two sides dig in on their positions, "I respond by asking questions of each," says an American official. "Is it possible for them to consider one approach? What is the nature of the difficulties?"
There were many predictions that a deal was on the verge on finalization late last year. But today the Hebron deal is stuck on the issue of whether Israel will commit to a date for all three stages of its planned troop withdrawals from the West Bank, as outlined in the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accords.
The handover of rural areas to the Palestinian Authority was to have begun in September and finished this coming fall. But Mr. Netanyahu is only willing to give a date for the first of the three redeployments.
And Mr. Arafat, fearing that the hawkish Israeli premier is trying to avoid carrying out the other withdrawals, is insisting that the dates be kept to the letter.
After weeks of anticipation that Ross would clinch a deal with an Arafat-Netanyahu summit, the leaders instead opted for an talk late Saturday that ran until 6 a.m. Ross had hoped that a meeting away from the media spotlight would help advance the talks and build confidence.