THE next round of Middle East peace talks begins tomorrow in Washington amid reports of a coming "breakthrough" in the key Palestinian-Israeli area. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres flew to Santa Barbara, Calif., over the weekend to brief Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a "Gaza-Jericho first" plan that PLO leader Yasser Arafat has reportedly approved. The plan, described by Israelis as a significant concession, involves a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the West Bank town
of Jericho. It would give Palestinians in these places "limited autonomy."
Granted, some spokesmen for the Palestine Liberation Organization also have referred to the "Gaza-Jericho first" deal as a "breakthrough," but much about the plan and the context of the peace talks needs examining. To announce a breakthrough without specific details, prior to any real negotiations, and knowing that the Palestinian leadership is in the most serious crisis since Mr. Arafat took control in the 1960s, ought to raise some eyebrows. Abundant evidence on the ground in the Israeli-occupied terri tories indicates that a Gaza-Jericho plan as articulated by Mr. Peres would be unacceptable. A plan to allow Palestinians more governance of their social welfare does not give them much more than they already have. Significant concessions would involve a discussion of issues like water and land.
The most serious concern is that once such a plan is accepted - a plan far short of the independence Palestianians long have sought - the Israelis would permanently close negotiations. It is telling also that amid the talk of a "breakthrough" on Gaza and Jericho, no mention is made of the ultra-sensitive issue of East Jerusalem. If, after decades of occupation and second-class status, PLO leaders are seen as giving away for free the last dreams of their people, a peace may be shortlived.
The greatest need in the coming round of talks is to put the Middle East process on a firm foundation headed for lasting peace. That will require both patience and diplomatic toughness. Mr. Christopher must be both an honest and a probing broker. Along with Arab and Israeli pressures to "get a deal," he is under pressure to come up with a US foreign-policy victory - something that has eluded the Clinton administration. It will be tempting to quickly accept a "breakthrough." But a serious breakthrough mus t answer: How would a withdrawal work? Who decides? What are the next steps down the road? How can the devastated civil infrastructure be restored? Such answers are lacking.