THE Middle East peace talks hit yet another bump Feb. 18, when Palestinian negotiators announced here that they would probably not attend the Feb. 24 bilateral negotiations in Washington unless Israel released one of their team who was detained Feb. 16.
"The process is at the brink of collapse.... It is a critical and decisive moment," delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told a press conference.
"We are trying to send a strong message to the world, to the [peace talk] sponsors, to the Israeli public, that the Shamir government is not giving peace a chance," said Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian delegation. "It's going to be very, very difficult to go to Washington without Mr. Shobaki with us."
Jamal Shobaki was arrested by Israeli intelligence because of "security considerations" and placed in administrative detention, according to Israeli Defense Force spokesman Moshe Fogel.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the Palestinian protest, saying it was "unfortunate that the Palestinian Arabs choose to include in their delegation people who are charged with organizing and fomenting terror acts."
"They cannot go to peace talks in Washington to talk peace and at the same time harbor amongst themselves people who organize terror," he added. "It's one or the other, but not both."
Under administrative detention, a suspect can be held up to six months without charge. In the wake of the Palestinian protest, an Israeli security official suggested that there was "some indication" Mr. Shobaki might be released earlier, leaving the possibility that he could be freed in time to attend the Washington talks.
Shobaki was prevented from leaving Israel when he tried to attend an earlier round of peace talks last month in Moscow. At that time another member of the Palestinian delegation, Mohammed Hourani, was arrested, and remains in detention.
"Shobaki has become a symbol of the Palestinians' ability to choose their own delegation," a Western diplomat says. "But the Israelis have a history of not backing down on this kind of thing."
United States diplomats are understood to have broached the Israeli authorities, and the Palestinians are relying on Washington to exert enough pressure to secure Shobaki's release.