Mideast Delegations Upbeat, But Palestinians at Home Worry

AS Palestinian and Israeli negotiators tackle core issues at the Washington peace talks, and voice optimism about their progress, some Palestinians watching from back home are less sanguine.

"It is not useful for the negotiators to create exaggerated and unrealistic expectations," argues Ghassan al-Khatib, who recently withdrew from the Palestinian peace team. "If nothing convincing comes out from this round, it will backfire."

"I don't think the Palestinians will have anything in their hands very soon," adds Zakaria al-Qaq, an analyst with the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. "The Israelis have not gone to Washington to tell the Palestinians just to open their sacks and take everything."

But both the parties to the negotiations are sounding upbeat in unison, a first since the Middle East peace talks were launched in Madrid 18 months ago. "There has been a change for the better, there is no question about that," said Israeli spokesman Yossi Gal. Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinians' spokeswoman, said Israel was "beginning to deal with issues in a more realistic way."

After five months without talks - following Israel's deportation of 415 suspected Palestinian extremists to south Lebanon last December and eight previous rounds of negotiations that yielded nothing tangible - there is a sense that substantive issues are at last on the table. The format of the negotiations alone indicates as much; the Palestinians have dropped their objections to splitting into working groups, which they had previously said were pointless because Israel's positions offered no grounds for

detailed discussion.

Now, separate groups are discussing land and water questions, human rights, and the powers and geographic jurisdiction of the proposed Palestinian self-governing authority. Technical experts - including a Palestinian cartographer and a Bank of Israel official - were hastily flown to Washington to join the talks. These developments appear to reflect some movement in Israel's negotiating positions.

Israeli officials now appear willing to let a self-governing Palestinian authority pass legislation, rather than simply issue regulations, on matters that do not touch on security. This moves closer to the Palestinian demand that the authority should have the fullest possible powers in the planned five-year interim period of autonomy, before final status of the Israeli-occupied territories is determined.

Israel apparently has increased significantly the amount of land in the occupied territories that it is prepared to cede to Palestinian administration. Officials here say they envision the Palestinians running 60 percent of the territories, including all towns and villages except East Jerusalem. Israel would retain control over 10 percent, including Army bases and Jewish settlements, while the remaining land would be shared.

This still falls far short of Palestinian demands. "The geographical extension [of Palestinian jurisdiction] cannot be measured in acres," Dr. Khatib argues. "This is not a business deal, it's a homeland. Whatever we give up now will be the first step to giving it up in the final status negotiations."

Only when Israel accepts the principle of placing all the occupied territories under Palestinian authority should the Palestinians offer to negotiate special interim status for settlements, military camps, and East Jerusalem, Khatib argues.

Palestinians here are worried that Israel refuses to discuss the status of Jerusalem and continues to expand settlements in the territories. Such concerns have helped undermine public Palestinian confidence in the negotiations, and in their delegation, especially since it returned to the talks without securing the return of the remaining 396 deportees, which they had earlier set as an essential condition.

Although the Palestinian delegation recommended boycotting the talks until the deportees were returned, it bowed to the orders of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, who came under heavy Arab pressure to return to the negotiations.

Aware that support at home for the talks has eroded, the Palestinian delegation badly needs to make progress in this round. But having returned to the talks without achieving their demands, "they gave [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin a signal that he can make progress not through Israeli concessions but through Palestinian concessions," Khatib says. "There probably will be progress, but it will be at our expense."

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