ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN negotiations appear to be hanging in the balance as the two sides yesterday failed to reach a deal on security measures in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to provide protection for Palestinians.
Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had resumed talks in Cairo yesterday to try to break the deadlock, but Palestinian officials say that Israeli proposals were not close enough to Palestinian demands.
Tunis-based Palestinian officials say that Israel has offered to start withdrawing its troops from Jericho and Gaza prior to the agreed-upon April 13 deadline. But Israel refused to remove Jewish settlers from the West Bank town of Hebron, where an armed settler killed at least 30 Palestinian worshipers on Feb. 25.
``All Israel has offered is to gather all Israeli settlers in one big settlement in Hebron,'' PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabo says.
The senior official, who took part in the talks with Israeli officials earlier this week, said that Israel has told the PLO that it refused to restrict the armed settlers' movements, or to disarm them.
``The Israeli delegation made it clear that the settlers issue is a strictly internal affair,'' he says.
Earlier reports suggested that Israel and the PLO were drawing closer to a deal involving some sort of international presence in Hebron and for the deployment of Palestinian police.
But Palestinian officials said that Israel adhered to its previous proposal to allow the Red Cross to act as an observer in Hebron.
In response to that offer, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat told ABC's Nightline on Tuesday, ``The ICRS [Red Cross] has been there in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 [when Israel captured the territories].''
Israel has also proposed to allow several thousands of Palestinian police, now in Jordan and Egypt, to enter Jericho and Gaza immediately.
However, the PLO said that it will not accept such offers, unless it is made clear that the police force will be under Palestinian jurisdiction.
``The Israelis have even refused that the police force be on the PLO payroll. That means it will be under the Israeli command and will be on the Israeli payroll,'' says a PLO official.
PLO officials say that Mr. Arafat was inclined to accept the resumption of the talks in return for speeding up Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza.
But at a meeting held late Tuesday night, Arafat failed to muster support of both his colleagues in the PLO executive committee and Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories for a more conciliatory position with Israel.
Even his staunchest supporters from his own mainstream Fatah movement are said to vehemently oppose going back to the negotiating table unless Israel offers better security guarantees and confidence-building measures to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
United States special envoy to the the Middle East peace talks, Dennis Ross, who has been attending the meetings in Tunis and Cairo, has apparently failed to coax the PLO to change its position.
``Mr. Ross had nothing to offer except for supporting the Israeli position,'' says a senior Arafat aide, who asked not to be named.
The PLO was alarmed by the US abstention last week on two paragraphs in a United Nations resolution condemning the Hebron massacre and supporting international protection for the Palestinians.
The US objected to the description of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as occupied ``Palestinian territories'' and the reaffirmation that East Jerusalem was part of the occupied territories.
The American argument has been that wording of the resolution could prejudice the final outcome of the talks, since it suggested an acceptance of an eventual Palestinian sovereignty. The US has never supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, and this latest position reinforced PLO fears that the US could actually try to block such Palestinian sovereignty.
The PLO and the rest of the Arab world, particularly Jordan, publicly resented the US abstention on the paragraph that regarded East Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories. The PLO has raised the issue with Ross in Tunis, asking for clarification on whether there was a shift in American policy, which previously rejected the Israeli annexation of the holy city.
``Mr. Ross said that there was no change on the American position but did not provide further explanation. We no longer understand where the US really stands,'' a senior PLO official said.