ISRAEL and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reopened their stalled peace talks yesterday, but even as they did so, they disagreed sharply over how long it would take them to reach an agreement.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, sounding upbeat about the prospects for an accord, predicted that he and his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Amnon Shahak, would need only three weeks to iron out their remaining differences.
Israeli officials, however, were predicting that the new round of talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba, deliberately left open-ended, could go on for as long as two months given the range of problems that remain unsolved.
The key issues in dispute are the same ones that have bogged down the negotiations for more than a month and made a mockery of the original schedule for establishing autonomous Palestinian rule in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, and for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from those areas. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said yesterday that there was only ``a chance we might keep to the timetable,'' which specifies that all Israeli troops are due to be out of Gaza and Jericho by April 13.
The major difficulties concern the size of the area around the West Bank town of Jericho that is to come under autonomous rule, provisions to ensure the security of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip, and control of border crossings from Egypt to Gaza and from Jordan to the Jericho region.
While Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres claimed he had reached an agreement on these questions with top PLO official Mahmoud Abbas at Cairo talks two weeks ago, Palestinians said they merely studied an Israeli draft.
It took 10 days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get both sides back to the table for talks they said would be based on the ``understanding'' reached in Cairo. That appeared to leave considerable scope for differing interpretations, which are expected to prolong the discussions. Meanwhile, however, as the negotiations drag on without results, public opinion on both sides is souring on the peace process.
``Israelis,'' says Prof. Elihu Katz of the Guttman Institute, a respected polling organization, ``are still supportive of the overall scheme, but not of the details. People are not enthusiastic. There is some price to be paid for the loss of momentum.''
Among Palestinians, support for the deal with Israel has fallen sharply, warned Israel's coordinator of the occupied territories, Gen. Danny Rothschild. One of the major reasons, he told the Cabinet on Sunday, are the worsening economic conditions. General Rothschild said that with none of the international aid projected for the autonomy period flowing yet, and with the PLO in severe financial difficulties, Jordan's refusal to import goods from the West Bank recently, in a dispute with the PLO, has hit the Palestinians hard.
At the same time, Israeli settlers are growing increasingly nervous about their future, and recent statements by Cabinet members have not reassured them. Agriculture Minister Yaacov Tsur predicted that, despite the government's insistence to the contrary, the Palestinians will eventually establish their own independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And over the weekend, Culture Minister Shulamit Aloni advocated moving the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza to ease security problems there.
That would run counter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's repeated promise that none of the settlements will be uprooted during the planned five- year interim Palestinian autonomy.
The 120,000 Israeli settlers can take heart, however, from a Housing Ministry plan, just unveiled, to spend a massive $660 million on new roads in the occupied territories, to link settlements and to provide settlers with routes that skirt major Palestinian population areas.
Although the general Israeli public appears still to support the idea of a peace treaty with the Palestinians, more and more people are expressing reservations and uncertainty.
This is in part due to the confusion surrounding the status of the talks, and the negotiators' arguments over what has been agreed, what has been ``understood,'' and what has been drafted.
``It is a verbal web,'' said Hebrew University professor of Communications Rafael Nir yesterday. ``In political jargon, there is a clear distinction between all these terms, but for the man in the street it is just confusing.''