Palestinians Show New Pragmatism As Mideast Peace Talks Approach

NEW signs of unusual flexibility on the part of Palestinian leaders, as they prepare for renewed Middle East peace negotiations, have raised hopes here that an agreement with Israel might prove easier than expected. But their apparent pragmatism has prompted fears among many Palestinians that such an agreement might not satisfy their aspirations to statehood and would increase violent conflict among them.

These fears are heightened by the Palestinian Liberation Organization's new readiness to accept American advice to agree with Israel on small, practical steps toward Palestinian autonomy, rather than insisting on Israel's acceptance of broad concepts.

Meanwhile, strategists from the PLO and the delegates who will resume talks with Israel in Washington on Aug. 24 are still divided over the top issue on Israel's agenda: how to hold elections in the occupied territories.

Officials from PLO headquarters in Tunis and delegation members from the occupied territories ended a meeting here this week by agreeing on a range of scenarios for the coming talks, but say they will withhold any initiative until they hear from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"We are waiting for Mr. Rabin to see what is new in his pocket that would help make progress in the peace process," says Suleiman Najab, one of 15 members of the PLO Executive Committee.

Many Palestinian leaders and analysts here suggest that in the continuing peace talks that the United States envisages, at least a framework for an agreement with Israel might emerge as soon as the end of October. Such progress would clearly suit President Bush, who is seeking a foreign-policy success before the US election in November. The prospects for rapid movement are heightened by the Palestinians' apparent readiness to accept conditions they have previously rejected.

While negotiators still insist they will not sign any agreement without a halt to all Israeli settlement of the occupied territories, they are now willing to discuss the nature of an autonomy arrangement without such a halt.

"We are not dogmatic," says PLO Executive Committee member Saleh Raafat. "We are ready to discuss substantive issues."

At the same time, Palestinian planners are saying explicitly for the first time that they would accept Israeli military installations in the occupied territories during the five-year interim period of autonomy. Some do not even rule out the maintenance of such posts as part of a final settlement.

Such statements have led many Palestinians outside PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's close circle of advisers to speculate that many more concessions are likely, in light of Mr. Arafat's anxious desire to reach an agreement with Israel, and Washington's enthusiasm for a settlement.

But "if the solution is along the lines of the hawks in the Israeli Labor Party [which would preclude the eventual possibility of a Palestinian state], it will be only a truce," says Assad Abdul Rahman, a member of the PLO's 100-strong central council. "In the end it would blow up."

To assuage such fears, Palestinian leaders insist their flexibility depends on a prior understanding with Israel that "the main goal of the whole process is an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories," as Mr. Najab puts it. "If we come to a main understanding with Israel that any steps to begin with are linked to steps that would come later, and that they all lead to the final end, we can solve all the problems we are discussing now."

That is unacceptable to Rabin, who has said Israeli settlements must remain intact, and that Israel will keep its troops in areas of the territories seen as essential to Israeli security.

If the Palestinians' stress on linked steps is designed to keep the prospect of a state alive, it is precisely to block such an outcome that Rabin has said any elections in the occupied territories would choose only an administrative, not a legislative, body.

This is likely to be a key issue of contention in the forthcoming talks, since it decides whether the fount of authority under autonomy will be the Israeli government or a Palestinian body.

"I expect the Palestinians will fight very furiously for legislative powers," says Fayez Tarawneh, deputy head of the Jordanian delegation to the peace talks.

The question of elections also poses a further problem for the PLO, which fears that a body elected by residents of the occupied territories would replace it and leave Palestinians outside the territories with no representation in the peace process.

This has led Palestinian strategists to consider the option of initially accepting an administrative autonomy council that would be nominated by the PLO, like the negotiating delegation, while postponing elections to a legislature until its nature and role were agreed upon later in the process.

But as negotiations draw closer, and the inevitability of concessions dawns on the Palestinians, PLO officials fear for the cohesion and credibility of their organization. With opposition to the peace process among Palestinians in the occupied territories on the rise, and in the absence of any progress, negotiators are anxious for achievements.

But "each time Arafat says yes to an additional concession, there will be an erosion of his support among his entourage," says Mr. Rahman. "And that will also be reflected on the street."

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