THE prospects for rapid progress in the deadlocked Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations appear dim following three days of talks in Cairo this week.
The major sticking point now for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat is no longer the size of Jericho or security provisions for settlers in the Gaza Strip, but who will control the passage of Palestinians from Egypt into Gaza and from Jordan into the Jericho region of the West Bank. The issue is of more than symbolic significance to Palestinians, who complain bitterly of humiliating treatment at Israeli border posts during 25 years of occupation.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said at a news conference late Wednesday that the two sides had reached a ``meeting of the minds on the three or four major issues.''
But the PLO released a statement that accused Israel of ``obstruction'' and of retreating from previous concessions made at earlier meetings that have attempted to bridge the deep divide between the two parties. ``The Israeli side has gone back to insisting on total control and supervision of all crossings and bridges leading to the Gaza Strip and the area of Jericho from which the Israeli Army will withdraw.... This will make this withdrawal no more than a redeployment of Israeli forces in these areas and empty it of all meaning.''
Mr. Arafat's arrival in the Egyptian capital for emergency talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak followed on the heels of the PLO's speedy and scathing denunciation of Mr. Peres's statement.
Differences over security, borders, and the size of Jericho delayed the start of the Israeli withdrawal earlier this month. According to the provisions of the historic Sept. 13 Declaration of Principles, the Israelis were to begin withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area on Dec. 13.
The delay in Israel's withdrawal has further tarnished Arafat's personal standing both within the Israeli-occupied territories and the PLO. Observers say this may have increased his personal conviction that he needs a substantial concession from Israel on the issue of the crossings in order to regain his status. Yet the Declaration of Principles leaves Arafat no room to maneuver on this issue since Israel did not concede control of the borders.
``In all probability Arafat thought that once the Declaration was signed that he could then negotiate better terms on the borders,'' explains one Western diplomat in Cairo, ``but the Israelis don't work like that. They have held on to control of security and foreign relations and are unlikely to make any magnanimous concessions - particularly as it appears increasingly unlikely that Arafat can keep control of the powder-keg situation in the occupied territories given the widespread hostility to his autocratic leadership style.''
Many Palestinians now view the current impasse as proof that Arafat did not give proper consideration to the vague provisions of the Declaration of Principles before signing. They say he was too eager to undercut the growing power of the radical Islamic group Hamas, become ``president of Palestine,'' and gain international financial aid for his bankrupt organization.
The PLO's hostility to the Israeli position, which decisively undercut Palestinian delegation leader Mahmoud Abbas's statement ``that we had important and deep negotiations in Cairo,'' led to a substantial downplaying by Peres of the prospects for rapid progress on his return to Israel. ``In view of the delay in negotiations, there is a risk that the Army's redeployment will not be completed by the planned date,'' the Israeli foreign minister told reporters Wednesday.
The disastrous prospect of an open-ended delay to an Israeli withdrawal, past the April 13 deadline, may force Arafat to appear more engaged in the peace process. Much to the irritation of his negotiators, he has been jetting off to Sudan and Yemen during this crucial week of talks.
Certainly Arafat's Egyptian hosts, who have long experience in negotiating with Israel, will be telling him that he has no more room to maneuver and that, however unpalatable the current offer, the Israelis will not concede substantially more.
If Arafat continues his current negotiating tactics, resolution of the impasse may be many months away. If he finally agrees to proposals that leave access to the autonomous Palestinian areas still under the direct control of Israel, the high hopes Palestinians were led to expect from the accord will collapse.
But as Arafat has tended to confuse his own personal interests with those of Palestinians as a whole, it may well be that he will prefer to continue with the present deadlock for a considerable period.
That, however, would leave the way open for violence in the territories to continue.