A UNITED Nations Security Council decision expected this week may help determine if and when Arab-Israeli peace talks resume.
Much depends on the final wording and strength of support for a controversial resolution deploring the Feb. 25 massacre in Hebron of dozens of Palestinians by an Israeli settler.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) wants to couple the condemnation with a call for an armed international force in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. Many Arab and nonaligned UN member nations, as well as PLO friends such as Greece and Russia, strongly support the measure.
Israel opposes any UN military presence, but might consider some kind of unarmed civilian presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, only if carried out in the context of the September 1993 Arab-Israeli accord that calls for a temporary international presence in those two areas during the transfer to Palestinian self-rule. But over the weekend, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said any international force could easily become a target itself and reduce rather than enhance security.
The United States, Israel's strongest friend on the Council and co-sponsor with Russia of the peace talks, has been doing much of the agonizing over the resolution's wording in recent Council meetings on the subject.
James Rubin, spokesman for the US mission to the UN, criticized as not ``particularly helpful or useful'' UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's early suggestion, in letters to both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat after the mosque tragedy, that UN observers be sent to the occupied territories. Joe Sills, the secretary-general's spokesman, expressed surprise, stressing that Mr. Boutros-Ghali suggested nothing new and understood that acceptance by both parties and the Council was required.
Nabil Shaath, a senior PLO envoy who held talks with top US officials in Washington late last week, said the pertinent UN resolution must be completed and the security issue settled before peace talks can resume. He said that Washington largely agreed with the PLO demand for a global presence to guarantee Palestinian safety in the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, there has been no agreement on wording of the UN resolution. Security Council President Jean-Bernard Merimee of France says the situation requires a ``political breakthrough.'' Nasser al-Kidwa, PLO observer at the UN and Mr. Arafat's nephew, says member nations of the UN's Arab group will meet today to reassess the situation.
``It has been our intention all the way to reach unanimity,'' he says, ``but if both sides conclude that it's not possible, we won't have any other alternative but to go for a vote.'' Still, he says he considers a US veto unlikely.
An unarmed civilian presence is a compromise strongly opposed by the PLO. Hermann Eilts, former US ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, says such a proposal would not satisfy Palestinian demands for a force that can deter armed settlers and protect Palestinians. But he says that the idea may be as much as the PLO can realistically hope for.
Ilan Peleg, a Middle East expert at Pennsylvania's Lafayette College, agrees that Israel is unlikely to consent to any armed UN force in the territories despite the widespread presence of UN peacekeepers in the Middle East.
Stressing that Arafat is in a ``very tight corner'' in terms of criticism among his own former supporters, Dr. Peleg says he thinks much of Arafat's stated concern over security is symbolic.
``I think his asking for major concessions is [largely] designed to show the Palestinians that he can get something for them.'' Thus, the symbolism of getting some kind of resolution could be useful, Peleg says. He says that Arafat needs an agreement with Israel to recover needed Palestinian support while, ironically, the lack of such support keeps him from returning to the talks.
To date, the PLO is still holding out for some mention of the status of Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories. Jerusalem, according to the September Arab-Israeli agreement, is to be discussed only after two years of the five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule.
Dr. Eilts, who recently retired as chairman of Boston University's Center for International Relations, says he doubts the final resolution will include any mention of Jerusalem. He says the Palestinians in effect are taking advantage of the situation by trying to move forward some later agenda items. If the Jerusalem issue is pushed too far, he says, it will ``kill'' the negotiations.