Israel's Peace Clock Drags

Israel faces deadlocks, deadlines, and too many deaths in its quest for peace with Palenstinians and Syria. Recent events bog down negotiations.

ISRAEL'S peace efforts, stalled on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, could soon become a hostage of the country's internal politics.

With less than two years to Israel's next election, Israeli officials are already jockeying for position with a host of conflicting solutions for the ailing Israel-PLO peace accord.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday that the election campaign would be in full swing by the beginning of 1996. (Mr. Peres did not rule out running in the primaries for the country's first directly elected prime minister.)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat will hold talks next week to try to end a deadlock over how to proceed with the ailing Israel-PLO peace accord.

The 16-month-old accord is facing renewed political pressure following the deaths of three Palestinian policemen in a shootout with Israeli soldiers in Gaza this week and a growing conflict between Palestinians and Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria have also deadlocked. But secret negotiations between Syrian and Israeli officials are continuing in the search for an accord whereby Syria would curb hostilities against Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

At a recent summit in Alexandria, Egypt, the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia backed Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in his demand for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

But Peres said that unless Israel reaches an accord with Syria by the middle of the year, there would be little chance of an agreement before Israel's general election scheduled to take place by November 1996.

``Syria cannot expect us to adopt their position before negotiations have started,'' Peres said, indicating that Israel was ready to negotiate a withdrawal from the Golan.

Peres noted that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak believed that Syria was committed to peace and had urged Israel to be more patient. ``Whether a miracle will happen or not, I don't know,'' he said.

In another potential blow for the peace process, senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath has threatened to quit unless agreement can be reached soon on the release of about 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners who still remain behind bars.

``Holding thousands of Palestinian prisoners is an unforgiveable crime...,'' Mr. Shaath said Tuesday at a joint news conference with Peres after Israel-PLO talks in Cairo failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Mr. Rabin is also facing mounting problems with a disillusioned Israeli public. His ruling Labor Party is in an increasing state of disarray as his coalition government loses support at the polls. The most recent poll conducted for Israeli television found that if elections were held today, Rabin's Labor Party coalition would no longer be assured of a working majority. The poll found that the right-wing Likud Party would increase its parliamentary seats from 32 to 41, while Labor would fall from 44 to 42.

Labor's central dilemma is that promises that implementation of the peace accord would bring Israelis greater security have not materialized since Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip in June.

Instead, more Israelis have been killed in political violence in the past year than at any other time since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

In this climate, Israeli officials have so far been unable to find a formula for implementing the next phase of the peace accord: the redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank prior to the holding of Palestinian elections and the extension of Palestinian autonomy.

Mr. Arafat's quandary is how to win the legitimacy that an election will bring him if it takes place in the presence of Israeli soldiers needed to protect about 120,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Israel's decision on Monday to halt the expansion of the Efrat settlement near Jerusalem on land claimed by Palestinians near the West Bank village of Al-Khader and then authorize building on a site closer to Efrat, has failed to defuse a mounting political row.

Jewish settler leaders have rejected the compromise as inadequate, but have stopped short of further protests. Palestinian leaders are demanding that all building on Jewish settlements be halted and that the confiscation of Palestinian land cease.

The Palestinian leaders said the compromise by Israel endorsed the principle of expanding Jewish settlements before Palestinian autonomy was extended to the West Bank.

Peres insisted yesterday that Israel confiscated land only for the purpose of building roads to by-pass Jewish settlements and create safe passages. He said that he had assured the Palestinian delegation at the Cairo talks that their fears were unfounded.

``We announced that we are not going to take new settlements.... We are not going to confiscate land to expand existing settlements or to build new settlements ... and we are not going to invest government money in expanding existing settlements,'' he said, adding that he was confident that agreement could be reached to proceed with the second phase of the peace accord.

But Peres added that the government would not force Jewish settlers on the West Bank to leave. He said this was a matter that would have to be negotiated when final status talks begin in May 1996.

He said that once there was an agreement, relations between Palestinians and Israelis would improve, and there was no reason why Jewish settlers - some 10 percent of the population on the West Bank - should not remain there under Palestinian or Israeli jurisdiction.

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