Sweating the details in Mideast

Barak and Arafat to meet today in Egypt. But Palestinian refugee status a peace obstacle.

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Almost everyone seems to agree that Israelis and Palestinians have never been closer to a peace deal. But are they close enough?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has signaled that he is more or less ready to go along with the outlines of the deal President Clinton sketched out over the weekend. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hasn't shown his hand, but is asking for more information on the Clinton plan.

"This holiday is decisive," Mr. Arafat said yesterday, the beginning of the Muslim celebration called Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. "With God's help, it will lead to a Palestinian boy or a Palestinian girl raising the flag of Palestine over the walls of Jerusalem," he said.

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The holiday triple crown - Christians and Jews are also celebrating holy days this December - is already paying a peace dividend: No one has died as a result of Israeli-Palestinian violence since Dec. 23.

Arafat and Mr. Barak were expected to meet today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a seaside resort in Egypt, and perhaps sit down one-on-one - the first such summit since violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians in late September. More that 350 people have died in 90 days, the most recent victims of a conflict that has lasted a century.

US officials expect the two leaders to reply to Clinton by tomorrow. A joint decision to go ahead would lead to intensive negotiations to finalize a peace deal, perhaps by the end of the Clinton presidency, but in all likelihood before Mr. Barak has to contest an election on Feb. 6.

Israelis - particularly those of the left-wing, dovish variety - say that a long-awaited historic compromise is at hand. "There's really a sense that this could be it," says Gershon Baskin, a longtime peace proponent who is the co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.

Conservative, right-wing Israelis also sense the imminence of a deal, and they are outraged. Leaders of Israeli settlements are calling Barak a "traitor," loudly noting that the punishment for treason is death, according to Israeli media reports yesterday. Many Israelis find such rhetoric troubling, since it also preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

On the Palestinian side, there is a sense of dread about the unpleasant compromises that reaching a peace agreement will entail. "Maybe we are closer than before but that doesn't mean we are close," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a private organization that represents Palestinian views.

Clinton's ideas for structuring a compromise - reportedly unwritten, but nonetheless appearing in newspapers around the globe - are very vague, says Mr. Khatib. "There is one aspect which is clear and to which the Palestinians can say 'no' without any hesitation and that is the refugees section: that is the Israeli maximalist position," he adds.

Where disagreement over the future status of Jerusalem prevented a peace deal at US-brokered talks held at Camp David this summer, these days the future status of several million Palestinian refugees is the tough nut to crack.

Ever since the state of Israel was founded in 1948 - after a war that caused the flight or deportation of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes - Palestinian leaders have insisted on their "right of return." These Palestinians now number some 4 million by UN count; Israelis says the number is closer to 2 million.

Either way, the idea of allowing them to return to their homes is anathema to Israelis. For one thing, the real estate - and in some cases the buildings - in question is occupied by Israelis. For another, absorbing millions of Arabs would quickly alter the character of the Jewish state. In the view of most Israelis, Israel would cease to be Israel.

The Clinton proposal, according to media reports, largely dismisses the idea of a return for Palestinians. A small number of refugees would be allowed into Israel under a family reunification scheme, but the vast majority would have to settle in the new state of Palestine or third countries, albeit with some financial compensation.

But insisting on the right of return has been a tenet of the Palestinian cause for decades. In the grim, entrenched refugee camps of Lebanon, it is the central hope for the future.

The sacredness of the idea makes it hard for Arafat to give ground, particularly at a time when many Palestinians have sacrificed loved ones in the cause of confronting Israeli forces.

The most important thing may be for Israel to acknowledge what happened in 1948 - pro-Israeli histories emphasize Arab flight, while other historians highlight the efforts of Jews to clear the land of its inhabitants - by formally recognizing the right of return. Palestinians "need the 'right' to be recognized, then some should return and some should find other ways to get compensation," says Khatib.

Amid the violence of recent months, Palestinian leaders have done virtually nothing to prepare their people for a deal.

"Now that [the leaders] are contemplating what are clearly compromises," says Joseph Alther, an independent Israeli political analyst who advised Barak at Camp David, "it's too late to prepare [the people]; you just have to dump this on them and assume that Arafat's authority is sufficient."

But in the event of a deal, Arafat will not be the only one with disgruntled constituents. The Israeli leader must contend with the opposition of Israel's settlers, who have built Jewish communities in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under the Clinton plan many of their settlements would be dismantled, although several such areas would be annexed to Israel.

"Barak is almost certain to be facing widespread civil unrest sparked by the settlers even before the election," Mr. Alther says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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