WITH Israel and the Palestinians publicly deadlocked over their faltering peace accord, officials from both sides met privately yesterday in undisclosed locations to try to resolve their differences.
But against a background of increasingly tough statements by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there were doubts that they would be able to do so.
``I hope the contacts taking place these days will succeed in overcoming the real obstacles, but I am not sure of that,'' says Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is a close adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Although differences remain over the size of the area around Jericho that is to enjoy autonomy under the Israeli-PLO deal, and over security provisions for Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip, the hardest argument is over who will control the border crossings from Jordan to Jericho, and from Egypt into Gaza.
Israel insists that under the Declaration of Principles, signed with the PLO in Washington in September, its Army is responsible for external security, which requires control of all border crossings.
``For us, external security is a central issue,'' Mr. Rabin told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) on Wednesday. ``It is inconceivable that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will not be deployed along the borders with Egypt and Jordan.''
The PLO is being equally firm in its insistence that Palestinians must be in charge of the crossings. ``We cannot accept that someone else could close the door [to the autonomous zones] at any stage and open the door at his will,'' Mr. Arafat told the BBC in London this week.
Beyond the questions of security and control lies the symbolic but crucial issue of sovereignty, which is implied by authority over a border point.
``Arafat is trying to get all the symbols of sovereignty,'' says one Israeli official close to the negotiations. ``He wants as many signs as possible that this is the first step to a Palestinian state. He doesn't seem to understand that this is an interim phase of autonomy, not an independent state.''
Though Rabin and Arafat disappointed the world when they decided at their meeting in Cairo last Sunday that they could not meet the Dec. 13 deadline they had set themselves for the launch of autonomy, they satisfied their respective domestic constituencies.
By refusing to give in on the question of border security, Rabin reinforced his image at home as a man who will never put his country at risk, winning plaudits for his steadfastness even from the opposition Likud party.
At the same time Arafat, too, benefited from his refusal to make concessions, shoring up his reputation a little among PLO critics who say he is giving up too much in the peace talks with Israel.
But Arafat lost diplomatic face with the delay in implementing autonomy, having insisted up until the last moment that the Dec. 13 date for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and Jericho was ``sacred.'' His concerns that if that date slipped, the whole peace process might slip, appear to have been well founded.
Rabin said earlier this week that he could not promise that Israel's military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho would be complete by the target date of April 13, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said in Paris on Wednesday that ``the question of dates is not sacred. What is sacred is peace.''
Such talk has sown doubts in Palestinian circles about Israel's sincerity, and Palestinian negotiators are worried not only about Rabin's public declarations. ``Israeli public statements are so tough, and their silent positions are also tough,'' says Dr. Tibi, who is familiar with this week's secret contacts.
The Israeli leader appears to be indulging in more than mere brinkmanship, according to Gidon Samet, a political commentator with the daily Haaretz, and veteran Rabin-watcher.
``Rabin has a tendency to play tough when things get rough, sometimes even more vehemently when he sees signs of weakening on the other side,'' Mr. Samet argues. ``And there are clear signs of weakness on Arafat's side.''
Under fire from even his closest PLO colleagues for his handling of the peace negotiations, and watching grass roots Palestinian support for his deal with Israel erode, Arafat is not in a strong bargaining position.
Israeli officials appear confident that the PLO leader will have to compromise on the border crossings issue. If he does not, they say privately, Rabin will cancel the meeting he had scheduled with him for next week.