US Mediation Prompts Palestinian Opening

Palestinian and Israeli positions are still far apart, but an `unofficial' Palestinian document suggests new flexibility on timing of sovereignty talks

ALTHOUGH a recent tour by United States mediators has failed to break the deadlock in the 20-month-old Middle East peace process, some Palestinian leaders say US chief coordinator Dennis Ross has secured an implicit Palestinian approval to consider a US proposal as the basis for negotiations on interim Palestinian self-rule in Israeli-occupied territories.

"Mr. Ross was not able to bridge the gap between the Israeli and the Palestinian positions, but he has succeeded in engaging the Palestinians in a serious discussion over the US document," one leading Palestinian negotiator said by phone from the West Bank.

The Palestinians had initially dismissed the US document as too protective of Israeli interests, but the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which appears eager to continue Palestinian participation in the peace process, has been sending signals to the US that it is ready to consider some of the ideas in the American proposal.

The PLO demonstrated new flexibility in an informal document conveyed to Ross through the Egyptian government earlier this week in Cairo, according to Palestinian officials in Tunis and the occupied territories.

Palestinian officials told the Monitor that the "the unofficial document," reportedly drafted by PLO chief negotiator Nabil Shaath and executive committee member Mahmoud Abbass, suggests that the Palestinians are ready to discuss a modification of the US proposal on Palestinian self-rule - in contrast to an earlier official Palestinian rejection of the American proposal.

The officials say the ideas conveyed through Egypt endorse some elements of the American proposal but stress that Palestinian jurisdiction during the interim period should include all areas that were not under Israeli control prior to June 1967 - when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the informal PLO draft reportedly does not refer to East Jerusalem, which so far has been the main stumbling block hindering progress in the Middle East peace talks.

The draft has created tension between the PLO and the Palestinian delegation, which has already presented an official counterproposal defining powers of Palestinian jurisdiction during the interim period and emphasizing that the West Bank and Gaza Strip - including East Jerusalem - should be subject to one law during the interim period.

The Israelis have suggested two separate laws, a Palestinian one dealing with the Palestinian population and criminal issues, and an Israeli one applying to Jewish settlers and to security matters.

The US refuses to deal with the PLO directly and confines its contacts to the Palestinian peace delegation drawn from the Israeli occupied territories.

PLO officials, however, say the proposal presented by the delegation in Jerusalem remains the "official Palestinian position," while the Cairo document represents an attempt at an indirect exchange of ideas between the US and the PLO.

Although the State Department is unlikely to respond officially to the PLO document, it cannot afford to ignore it, since it partly reflects the PLO's readiness to display more flexibility, and because the organization effectively directs the delegation despite its exclusion from the talks.

What makes the PLO gesture even more meaningful is that the leadership has evidently convinced the delegation to adopt a key paragraph from the American proposal in its document. According to Palestinian officials, the paragraph says issues of sovereignty would not be included in the negotiations over the interim status, but that those interim arrangements would not affect the final status of the territories.

This conciliatory move by the PLO reflects a strong feeling in Tunis, where the organization is based, that the Palestinians have no other options. It is also a clear attempt by the organization to assert its role and signal to Washington that some of the hurdles could be overcome once the PLO is included in the process, according to political analysts.

This Palestinian tactic, sending conciliatory messages through Egyptian officials and influential American Middle East experts, has so far failed at getting the US to resume its dialogue with the PLO, which was suspended in 1990.

Palestinian opponents of this tactic have maintained that the PLO is actually weakening the Palestinian negotiating position by implicitly revealing to the US the bottom line on the concessions that the Palestinians are willing to make.

Some PLO officials, however, counter that since the informal document is non-binding, it could pave the way for exploring ideas between the US administration and the PLO.

Regardless of the PLO's motives, the new Palestinian-American exchanges have clearly opened the way for more advanced negotiations, although that does not suggest that the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians on fundamental issues is any narrower.

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