Israeli-Palestinian Mistrust Soars Over Hebron

Hebron should be a place of friendship. Called Hevron in Hebrew and al-Khalil in Arabic, at the root of both words is "friend."

But it is perhaps the absence of any friendship, camaraderie, or even basic trust that has brought Israelis and Palestinians to an impasse in talks over what kind of control each should have over this West Bank city, a scene of daily confrontation between 100,000 Palestinians, 400 Jewish settlers, and the Israeli Army.

And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has entered a waiting game, hoping that by stalling - at least until after US elections, and maybe longer - he will be able to extract more from a new Israeli government he doesn't trust.

The inability of the negotiators to agree on the long overdue Israeli troop withdrawal from Hebron - about 80 percent of which is supposed to be turned over the Palestinian Authority (PA) - is the most glaring symptom of the loss of trust between the two parties.

It is not just uniformed Israelis and Palestinians manning checkpoints who feel they can't trust each other enough to conduct joint patrols. That suspicion reaches the top echelons of Israeli and Palestinian leaders who, despite two months of talks and intensive mediation efforts by the Clinton administration, have yet to reach a settlement.

"No, there is not a feeling of faith and goodwill," says one Israeli official who asked not to be named, "but there is still some air of mutual respect."

Negotiators are stuck on disagreements over a few key issues on Hebron: Israel's demand that the PA police carry pistols instead of semiautomatic rifles; Israel's demand that its Army have an independent right to "hot pursuit" of wanted Palestinians in the areas controlled by the PA; and the Palestinians' demand to open Martyrs' Street, a main market road that the Israeli Army closed to Palestinian traffic as a buffer between hostile neighbors.

Israel blames the delay squarely on Mr. Arafat. They insist he's stalling until after the US election, expecting to find firmer pressure on Israel from Washington after the vote.

"We can reach an agreement, but whenever we come close, the Palestinian side reopens things that have already been agreed to," says Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel. "That they have instructions to go slow is clear. Arafat believes that he has time," Mr. Fogel says. He complains that Palestinian negotiators suddenly demanded that a deal include other facets, such as a safe passageway for travel between the West Bank and Gaza and the release of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails. Fogel says Arafat is now using the impasse to gain support from Europe and the Arab world, and to "milk it for all it's worth."

If Arafat is holding out in hopes of post-election toughness on Israel, US officials say, he is wrong.

"If the Palestinians expect American policy to change in two weeks, I don't know what they're thinking," says an American diplomat here. "It's pretty clear that both sides are stalling now."

Because security is its first priority, the new hard-line Israeli government appears ready for a long-term stall. Unlike previous governments, it sees trading land for peace as a threat to Israeli security. But it may be stalling while trying to figure out a strategy to guarantee security for Israelis.

As for Arafat, some analysts muse that he sees himself enjoying a status starkly different than after the 1991 Gulf war, when he supported Iraq. Back then his cash flow from Arab leaders dried to a trickle. Now, as pro-Arab France and Russia jockey for space as brokers in the US-sponsored process, Arafat may feel less pressure to make a deal.

But to some Palestinians, he can't afford to make a deal. In real terms, that's why the Palestinians have this week rejected a deal exclusively on Hebron. Since Israel inevitably will win some changes in Hebron - the 400 Jewish settlers have been given the right to expand their living space and numbers without permission from the PA - Arafat must make up the difference with other victories.

After all, to Palestinians, Hebron is a litmus test of what the new Israeli government will do to implement the Oslo peace accords, which were signed by previous Israeli governments.

"They want to change the concept of the agreement, not just Hebron, but many matters that are already settled," says Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian negotiator.

The Israelis "want to pick and choose," he says. "For the Palestinians to have control over civil affairs and [yet] Israel have all the security, we cannot agree to it."

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