A UNITED STATES proposal intended to salvage the Arab-Israeli peace process was sharply criticized by both sides yesterday.
The US proposal - presented at the end of the 10th round of peace talks to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians - instead threatens to become a major source of contention.
While Israel's displeasure emanates from what it views as the new plan's deviation from a previous American proposal announced on May 12, the Palestinians argue that the plan blocks the way for Palestinian sovereignty and implicitly accepts Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem.
"I would say that the United States should stick to the May 12 document," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said yesterday. "Any changes to that document will not be received by us with great sympathy."
The Palestinians dismissed the May 12 plan as too protective of Israeli interests. Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi says the new draft violates the conditions the parties accepted when they agreed to join the peace process: the idea that Israelis and Arabs would trade land for peace.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials reached by telephone in Tunis said the new US plan endorses an Israeli proposal for limited self-rule for the Palestinians known as "early empowerment." The plan would give Palestinians control over some governmental functions in the occupied territories, but not land.
The officials also say the US draft makes no mention of what will happen to East Jerusalem, other than to say Palestinian residents of the city will be allowed to vote in future elections.
The PLO leadership, which held an emergency meeting to discuss the plan, was particularly alarmed that the US document did not refer to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "occupied" or "Palestinian" territories. An official in Tunis says the American language practically "accepts the Israeli definition of the land as `disputed' territories."
Israeli officials argue that "early empowerment" will allow the transfer of responsibility over various government functions - including health, education, and police - to the Palestinians before an agreement is reached on a five-year interim period that will precede negotiations over the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian officials concede that early empowerment would improve living conditions for Palestinians in the territories, but fear that the arrangement could substitute for negotiations on Israeli withdrawal and close the door to Palestinian sovereignty.