ABU DIS, WEST BANK — In the office of Ahmed Qurie, the Palestinian legislative Speaker better known as Abu Ala, hangs a poster with the slogan "Palestine: The Promising Land."
The takeoff on the age-old Jewish reference to Israel as "The Promised Land" seemed appropriate in 1993 when Abu Ala helped draft the Oslo peace accords that laid out a path for Israel to hand over land for self-rule by Palestinians.
Now that path looks as rocky as the Holy Land itself. Palestinian leaders see a severe crisis, and plead for American pressure on Israel. But Israeli officials maintain the accords allow them to build Jewish homes in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem and to decide unilaterally how much West Bank land they will turn over.
"I have never been as pessimistic as I am today," says Abu Ala, as he flutters his thumb and index finger through a string of orange worry beads. Warning that a failed peace process could return the Mideast to a "circle of violence," he adds: "This is not what the Israeli people want. They will lose, and we will lose."
The rancor drawing international alarm is clearly rooted in the wildly different interpretations of the accords that Abu Ala helped hammer out. They make general statements about three upcoming Israeli troop redeployments and the negotiability of Jerusalem in "final status" talks, but they make few explicit statements on either of the two matters.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Arabs don't trust hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected last May.
In the end it may take pressure from President Clinton to untangle the ambiguities.
All about A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s
The dispute literally boils down to A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s. The Palestinians now have total control over 3 percent of the West Bank called Area A and civilian control in another 24 percent called Area B, while Israelis maintain the rest in Area C.
Abu Ala and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat say that once the three land transfers are made, Area A should encompass some 90 percent of the West Bank.
But even dovish Israelis say their slain peacemaker, Yitzhak Rabin, never intended to give much more than 50 percent at this stage in the talks.
And according to Mr. Netanyahu, it is Israel's sole prerogative to determine the scope of the further redeployments.
The United States supports that assessment, but Mr. Clinton is encouraging Israel to make subsequent transfers bigger than the one announced last week. It would transfer another 2 percent to Area A and another 7 percent to Area B, a transitional area where Israel keeps its overriding security control.
Scribbling his math on a piece of paper, Abu Ala starts with 100 percent. He then subtracts the 27 percent of the West Bank that Area A and B now are together, then deducts the 10 percent he allows for Jewish settlements and "to be agreed upon" military locations Israel will retain.
What remains is 63 percent - what Palestinians expect to add to their current land by the end of the three Israeli pullbacks so they have a total of 90 percent.
"To give me 2 percent at the first stage of the redeployment, it's a joke," he says. "It's a big insult."
But the PA isn't even finding Israeli peaceniks to back up their 90 percent.
The left-wing Meretz party's Amnon Rubinstein, a Rabin confidant who served in the former prime minister's Cabinet, says the assassinated premier talked about giving half of the West Bank during the so-called interim phase.
"His idea was somewhere about 50 but not substantially more than that, so as to leave room for negotiations in the final status talks," Mr. Rubinstein says.
By that calculation - and now Netanyahu's - Israel would lose its bargaining chips if it gives up too much land before dealing with the "save the worst for last" issues like Jerusalem, borders, and the return of refugees.
Neither Israel nor the US ever agreed to 90 percent, says Rubinstein. "But part of this is that the Palestinians weren't consulted. Israel is reverting to unilateral, one-sided steps. There should have been preliminary negotiations."
That there is so much room for interpretation - combined with Palestinian complaints of violations - raise questions as to why the agreement was drafted with such vagueness in the first place.
Israeli negotiators say its nebulous design was constructive: It helped keep the accords moving.
Abu Ala acknowledges that, during the making of the peace agreements, he was disappointed in the ambiguous nature of the territorial transfers, which specify only an 18-month timetable, not the percentages of land.
He argued for the size of the redeployments to be specified clearly in the agreement and lost.
Palestinians say Arafat was persuaded to trust Israeli intentions as a part of the "confidence-building" process. "The agreement doesn't specify how much land, but there is a logic to it," Abu Ala says. "If we just go by the wording of the agreement we will spend 50 years doing this. I'm speaking about the spirit of the agreement."
High pitch on Har Homa
Abu Ala's voice climbs a few notches when he comes to the issue of Israeli plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood on a disputed hilltop in southeast Jerusalem.
Israel annexed the eastern half of the city in 1980 as its sovereign, eternal capital, and right-wingers in Netanyahu's government have been demanding he build on Har Homa to preempt any redivision of the Holy City.
But to Palestinians, a new settlement on the hill is a violation of the accords and an attempt to change facts on the ground.
"The problem is: When will they respect the commitment to stop settlement?" Abu Ala asks angrily, banging a fist on his desk.
On this matter, too, the Oslo accords are imprecise. They don't say Israel can't build in East Jerusalem, but simply state that neither party should take measures to prejudice the outcome of the final settlement.
The battle over Jerusalem's demography is apparently more important to the Palestinian leadership than the scale of land transfers.
While Abu Ala says he's confident Palestinians will eventually get nearly all of the West Bank, Jerusalem has the ability to inflame passions like nothing else.
Israelis are trying to persuade the Palestinians to lower their expectations of territorial compromise. Foreign Minister David Levy told Arafat deputy Abu Mazen that Israel would not reconsider Har Homa or the size of the redeployment. Abu Mazen quit as head negotiator in response, but Arafat has refused his resignation.
A stabbing and scuffles in the territories this week indicate new confrontations aren't out of the question, but Arafat has not made any outright, mass appeal for violence so far. (See story below.)
Instead, he is trying to intensify international pressure on Israel to reconsider its decisions. American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Arab diplomats have been invited to Gaza this weekend to discuss the crisis.
The conference would come on the heels of a harsh letter sent to Netanyahu this week by Jordan's King Hussein, the one Arab leader who has called for giving the Israeli premier a chance.
Netanyahu, on a trip to Moscow, defended his understanding of the peace accords and criticized the hasty talk of new bloodshed.
"We're not building a settlement.... We're building a neighborhood in ... Jerusalem. It is our responsibility and our right to build in Jerusalem," he said.