Middle East Peace Talks Could Include Elections

They would give Palestinians a long-awaited chance at home rule

WITH one eye on voters at home, Israel's Likud government is resurrecting an old idea to invigorate a new round of Middle East peace talks.

Israeli sources say a plan for local elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip - an idea once tried and banned by Israel - would give Palestinian residents a long-awaited chance for self-rule. If it breathes life into the peace process, as officials of Israel's Likud government hope, it could also score points at home in time for national elections in June.

The expected Israeli election plan would be the focus of the fifth round of peace talks, which begins here today. But whatever its impact at home, it is unlikely to revitalize into a peace process that after five months has still scored no substantive breakthroughs.

Palestinians see Israel's sudden new interest in local elections as a ploy to exploit differences between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chief competitor for influence in the territories, the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas.

Faced with the risk of losses in key West Bank towns like Hebron, the PLO will have no alternative but to reject the plan, some diplomatic analysts predict. Palestinians are also worried that elections would produce a pool of delegates with a local rather than "national" base, and weaken the link to the PLO, which has had a major say in the composition of the current delegation and its negotiating posture.

As Round 5 begins, Bush administration officials say they are pleased with the progress of the talks, which few observers felt would ever take place given the animosities that have spawned five Arab-Israeli wars since 1948. Since the first Washington round in December the parties have resolved thorny procedural disputes - including a recent agreement to hold the next round in Rome - and are now engaged in negotiations involving land, peace, and security issues.

"While we would like to see much more substantive progress in the course of these talks, there is no question that the parties are fully and seriously engaged...," a senior State Department official told reporters last week.

The official says the goal of this week's round will be to get the parties to begin narrowing their differences. The biggest differences exist between Israel and Syria, which is demanding the end to Israel's quarter-century occupation of the Golan Heights. Israel refuses to budge until Syria recognizes its right to exist.

Differences between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation focus on arrangements for interim self-government for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

The first-ever bilateral peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors were launched last October in Madrid. Multilateral talks on regional issues, including economic development, refugees, and water resources, are due to begin next month in Brussels, Ottawa, Vienna, Tokyo, and Washington.

The decision to move the sixth round of bilateral talks to Rome is a concession to Israel whose negotiators, all senior government officials, have found the long commute to Washington a hardship. Moving the talks from Washington, Israel hopes, will also reduce the risk that the United States will pressure it to relinquish occupied territory to gain peace with Arab countries.

"I would not interpret the move to Rome as any lessening of the US role," comments the senior State Department official. "We will be an honest broker, we will be a catalyst, we will be a driving force. That is the case whether the talks are held in Washington, ... Rome, or any other venue."

The move to Rome also symbolizes the interest of Italy and the European Community in playing a more active role in the Middle East.

The EC nations have long championed Palestinian self-determination. But as one sign of a shift toward a more neutral stance, the EC is now considering an Italian proposal to upgrade economic relations with Israel by abolishing barriers to the movement of capital, goods, and services.

"It's a matter of creating a better environment for the talks," says a senior European diplomat in Washington. "If Israel is more integrated [into the European economic system] its sense of isolation will be reduced and it will be more ready to make concessions in the peace talks."

The Likud government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir may press for one more round of talks before the June 23 elections as another means of dramatizing its peacemaking role to Israeli voters. But the Arab parties will not be eager to reward Mr. Shamir for his intransigence on the issues of Jewish settlements and territorial concessions - or to compromise the chances of the more liberal Labor Party candidate, Yitzhak Rabin - by going along.

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