Working Out the Details Of Palestinian Autonomy May Trouble Peace Talks

IN his plastic pipe factory in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Bassam Abu Rabah is already looking forward to the benefits of Palestinian self-rule.

"I would double my production right off," he says, pointing to machinery that runs at half speed for lack of demand. "It's not just plastics, it's everything. Hopefully we'll be the bridge between here and the Arab world."

After 10 months of fitful negotiations and little progress, the Middle East peace talks are scheduled to resume today amid speculation that the long-awaited breakthroughs are now possible. But even leaving aside the questions of settlements and human rights, which are likely to loom large from the start, some fundamental obstacles remain over the logistics of working out a resolution.

The main disagreement concerns the structure of a Palestinian interim self-government. The Palestinians want a legislative assembly, but Israel talks only of an administrative body, arguing that to allow anything more would be tantamount to granting statehood.

"If the Palestinians will try and turn it into a Palestinian state, then they will face, immediately, our objection," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters last week.

Asked to say where the ultimate legislative authority would lie in the Israeli version of autonomy, Mr. Peres said military rule would persist. "The present status quo, as an overall framework, will remain," he said.

The "status quo," says Meron Benvenisti, an expert on Israeli policy in the territories, is "an entire codex of 2,000 military orders ... that totally changed the entire system in the West Bank."

The prospect of limited autonomy while still subordinate to a system of military orders reviled by the local population is rejected by members of the Palestinian delegation. "We cannot survive without having the right to have our own laws," says Samir Hileileh, a Palestinian economist involved in drawing up proposals for the delegation.

But the presence of more than 100,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank is a hugely complicating factor. If the settlers are to exist outside the realm of Palestinian authority, what happens to about 40 percent of the West Bank already allocated to settlements? The result might be a disjointed series of autonomous Palestinian cantons.

"There's total physical integration of the West Bank into Israel," Mr. Benvenisti says. "How can you envisage separation, even functional separation, when the West Bank is in the guts of Israel?"

Mr. Hileileh denies the charge that Palestinian proposals constitute a blueprint for statehood. To him, autonomy is about the reordering of relations between occupier and occupied. "This period is there to show Israel that we're not a threat in the future; to show that we're capable of handling out own affairs and to defuse the tension in the whole area."

The government says it is eager to do its part to improve the atmosphere, and has begun to talk about abandoning some of the more Draconian punishments meted out to Palestinian offenders, including expulsion and the demolition of houses.

But the intifadah (uprising) still smolders, and Palestinian negotiators complain of unfair and degrading treatment at the hands of Israeli officials, as well as a lack of access to information.

"For 25 years, the Israelis have deprived us of most of the very basic information that we need to run our own lives ... and left us naked," says Hassan Abu Libde, a university professor who coordinates the work of various technical committees of the Palestinian delegation. "If we come to a point where we have to plan our own destiny and economy," Professor Abu Libde says, "It is going to be extremely frustrating to find out that certain information is simply not available."

THE lack of information covers practically every field, from water usage to population statistics and land ownership.

"What is the exact Israeli market share in the West Bank and Gaza?" Abu Libde asks. "What is the exact number of Palestinians who leave the country and lose their residency? What is the size of the taxes Israel collects? These are mysteries."

Palestinian employees of Israeli departments, including the vital Bureau of Statistics, are under orders not to talk to members of the Palestinian delegation. Peres defended the order, saying: "If they will approach members of our delegation, they will get the information which is relevant to the negotiations."

Despite a sense of optimism about the Washington talks emanating from Arab capitals, Palestinians have warned against exaggerated expectations.

"Undue euphoria is not called for," chief Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said last week. "We won't be carried away by changes of tone and rosy diction. We're looking at substance. We're going to tread very carefully and very slowly."

Benvenisti is even more pessimistic. The climate of confrontation, coupled with a reluctance to engage in real face-to-face talks, he says, proves that "the conflict is not ripe for a solution. I do not think that anything positive will come out of the negotiations," he says. "It's going to lead nowhere."

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