Palestinians Seek US Help To Halt Israeli Settlement

As parties gear up for Round 2 of Mideast peace talks this week, Israel wants a passive US, while Palestinians are relying heavily on an active role for Washington

ISRAEL'S success in delaying the date for peace talks, due now to resume tomorrow or Wednesday, has dampened initial Palestinian hopes that the United States will use its influence on Israel when necessary to move the peace process forward.Palestinians look to the US to press Israel early in the bilateral talks to halt settlements in the occupied Arab territories, according to Palestinian delegation members and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials. But the latest signals are not good, they say, and could have serious consequences for the Palestinian negotiating strategy. The Palestinian delegation, which with other Arab teams has been waiting for the Israeli delegation to arrive in Washington, is disappointed in US reluctance to blame Israel for delaying the second round of the talks. "Instead of blaming Israel for impeding the process, Washington tried to exonerate Tel Aviv by pressuring the Arab delegations to reach a compromise on the date through direct contacts with the Israelis," charged PLO executive committee member Abdullah Hourani in a telephone interview from Tunis. Israel declined to attend bilateral talks called for last Wednesday and insisted on beginning the sessions on Dec. 9. Israel's position, according to official statements, reflected disenchantment with Washington's failure to consult the Israeli government before announcing the date and venue of the meetings. This week, Israel officials said that they had made their point that the US cannot impose its will on Israel. The Arab delegations in turn insisted on starting talks on Dec. 10, citing Dec. 9 as the fourth anniversary of the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation. Palestinians had hoped that Israel's position would step up US and international pressure for a halt to settlements. In addition, both the PLO and the Palestinian delegation were alarmed when Washington refused to grant entry visas to PLO advisors. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who was in Amman at the time, ordered the delegation to delay its departure, and even to boycott the talks, if the US did not reconsider its ban. But after seven hours of deliberations, during which Arab governments, especially Egypt, interceded, Mr. Arafat grudgingly approved the trip, Palestinian officials said. "Arafat changed his position in the hope that our presence in Washington will expose Israeli intransigence and sway American public opinion," a prominent Palestinian delegate said before the delegation's departure. Palestinian officials in Tunis described the American attitude as "shocking," crushing earlier hopes that the Palestinian delegation and the team of PLO advisors could win another round of positive publicity such as it scored during the Madrid conference in October. Of greatest concern to Palestinians, however, is that what they now see as a "lenient American attitude toward Israel" could undermine the Palestinian negotiating strategy. According to delegates, the Palestinian delegation has two important objectives: * To ensure a halt to, or at least a freeze on, Israeli settlements at the beginning of the negotiations. * To press for application of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which allows for international protection for peoples under occupation, during the suggested five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule. On the settlements question, Palestinians are relying on US support. "I think basically the only thing that could change the Israeli attitude is economic pressure by the US," says Haidar Abdul Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation. Palestinians are looking to Washington to extend its freeze on the $10 billion loan guarantee requested by Israel beyond January, if necessary. They fear that if Israel continues confiscating lands for settlement-building there will be nothing to negotiate over by the end of the peace process. Implementation of the Fourth Geneva Convention during the interim period, Palestinian officials explain, could pave the way for Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, instead of Palestinian self-administration under Israeli sovereignty. But at PLO headquarters in Tunis, the latest experience with the US administration has reinforced old suspicions about US seriousness in pressing for a peace settlement. "The Americans have revealed their cards.... The latest experience has exposed the US lack of credibility as a neutral sponsor of the peace talks," says Mr. Hourani. The PLO leadership in Tunis is not expected to pull out the Palestinian delegation, but it might do so if there is no progress on the issue of the settlements. "This issue [the settlements] is the red line that we cannot cross," says Hourani. Palestinian delegates have said that the settlements are the issue that they are ready to fight for even if that means the breakup of the talks.

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