Mideast arrows, no valentines

Palestinians try to arrange a weekend summit in Switzerland. Will

It appears Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak won't be exchanging any valentines this year, as deadlines once again prove elusive in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators indicated Sunday that the two sides are unlikely to meet a Feb. 13 target for a framework accord. The two sides remain far apart on issues such as Jewish settlements, borders, security, water, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem.

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said yesterday that Mr. Arafat hoped to meet Mr. Barak and President Clinton during an economic conference this weekend in Davos, Switzerland.

Many analysts see Jerusalem as one of the most thorny issues ahead of September's deadline for a full agreement. If no accord is reached, Arafat has threatened a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Officially, Barak's position is that Jerusalem is the united, indivisible, and eternal capital of Israel. Unofficially, the message is: It's negotiable. In reality, the city is already divided in many ways.

Last week, Mr. Barak raised Palestinian objections by postponing a scheduled withdrawal of Israeli troops, transferring another 6.1 percent of West Bank land to full Palestinian control. Yet the dispute focuses not on when it will happen, but rather, where.

A possible solution

Arafat wants the redeployment to include areas immediately around Jerusalem, which would help him consolidate Palestinian Authority (PA) control around the city's eastern outskirts. There, according to one potential solution, the PA could base a capital called al-Quds - Arabic for Jerusalem, or "the Holy" - just outside city limits.

Though politicians on both sides have distanced themselves from the Abu Mazin-Yossi Beilin plan, named for its originators, it remains the most often quoted source for an answer to the Jerusalem quandary. Palestinians are loath to discuss a capital in Abu Dis, a village east of Jerusalem, as too large a concession. Equally explosive for Israelis is a provision for a Palestinian corridor from the proposed capital to Muslim shrines in Jerusalem's Old City.

If Israeli media reports are correct, Barak recognizes that the Palestinians would not be content with a capital wholly outside Jerusalem. Already on the table, according to the influential Haaretz newspaper, are plans to transfer some Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Palestinian control.

That is, after all, already a fact on the ground. Plainclothes Palestinian police operate in most parts of East Jerusalem, and Arab residents have begun to look to Palestinian government ministries for many basic services. Barak, according to this scenario, intends to formalize the PA's de facto control in these areas while keeping security powers in Israeli hands.

Preparing for compromise

Barak's office issued a denial of such reports, calling any such discussion premature. "We raised and expressed our positions but we don't believe in addressing this in the media," says Gadi Baltiansky, a spokesman for Barak. But other members of Barak's Labor Party are more forthcoming. Yossi Katz, who serves as the Labor Party's special coordinator to the Palestinians, says the change in Barak's rhetoric since his election six months ago shows that he is preparing the ground for compromise.

"For 20 years, Israeli politicians have said that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Jewish people. If you hear the voices of Israeli politicians in the last 5 months, you cannot ignore the fact that people are not talking in same language. People understand that there must be a compromise," says Mr. Katz.

Barak can increase the appeal of this concept by annexing Jewish suburbs west of Jerusalem, offering an end to Israel's worries about maintaining a Jewish majority in the city, now about one-third Arab.

But in Barak's tenuous balancing act between the Palestinian and Syrian tracks of the peace process, both of which are expected to require territorial concessions, he may feel far from ready to bring his case for compromise to the Israeli public. Haaretz writer Nadav Shragai wrote in an editorial, "The recent reports about the new Israeli proposal, which amount to the city's partition, have one goal: to prepare Israeli public opinion for the compromise that is expected not only on the Golan Heights, but in Jerusalem as well."

Palestinians, meanwhile, appear unenthusiastic. "Abu Dis is a village next to Jerusalem, but it is not Jerusalem," says Ghassan Khattib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, an East Jerusalem think tank. "The Israelis want that as part of the final solution to Jerusalem, they give municipal responsibility around Jerusalem in return for Palestinians giving up claims to sovereignty in Jerusalem. Palestinians don't accept that."

Other commentators say Arabs and Muslims worldwide would oppose any decision to drop Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.

"For me, Palestine without Jerusalem means nothing. It is just another ghetto for us," says Said Kanaan, director of the Palestine Center for Research Studies in Nablus, the northern West Bank.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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