...While Those in Occupied Lands Wait (cf. "...Diverse Views Aired at Palestine Council...")

AS the Palestine Liberation Organization weighs its participation in a Middle East peace conference, Palestinians in the occupied territories are expressing strong reservations about the parley proposed by the Bush administration.Despite expectations by some observers that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip would come out with a clear call on their leadership to attend the conference, prominent Palestinian spokesmen have meticulously avoided any statement endorsing the United States-led initiative. The reluctance to support the parley reflects the persistent unwillingness of local Palestinian activists to go beyond statements made by PLO leaders attending the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Algiers. The cool reception of the peace conference idea was evident at a public forum held this week in east Jerusalem, in which not a single speaker, representing a range of PLO factions, could say a positive word about the US-proposed parley. The strongest condemnation came from Riad Malki, a college professor considered a backer of the hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Significantly, his remarks were the only ones that drew applause from the audience. Echoing statements of PFLP leader George Habash in Algiers, Mr. Malki urged the PNC to respond with a "resounding no" to "Baker's conference of capitulation." The terms for the conference given by US Secretary of State James Baker III were inadequate for a number of reasons, Malki argued: They denied a role for the PLO; failed to confirm Palestinian rights to self-determination, an independent state, and return of refugees; and did not include a freeze of Israeli settlement activity or a commitment to total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Instead of having independent representation, Palestinians would be subsumed in a Jordanian negotiating team, and residents of east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel, would not be represented, Malki said. Instead of playing an active role in the talks, United Nations and European Community representatives would be limited to the status of silent observers, he added. University professor and columnist Sa'eb Erakat, considered a supporter of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction in the PLO, avoided an unequivocal call to attend the peace conference. The PLO should unilaterally appoint its own peace negotiators, Mr. Erakat said, putting the onus of rejecting the list on Israel and the US. A backer of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine also condemned the conference, calling it a "second Camp David agreement," which would produce only limited and inadequate autonomy arrangements for the Palestinians. The speakers' lack of enthusiasm for the peace conference reflected widespread skepticism in the territories that the parley in its proposed format could produce any gains for the Palestinians. In private conversations, Palestinians say they see little to gain from a conference whose terms fall far short of their minimal goals. Pessimism about a peace conference was reflected in the poor attendance at the east Jerusalem forum held at the Al-Hakawati Theater. Usually packed for political meetings, its seats were far from filled, and much of the audience was made up of reporters covering the event.

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