Israel Sandbags Talks With New Security Demand

Official's proposal would leave an Israeli presence in a ring around Palestinians.

They cover the players' walls in major wars and small-town land disputes.

Maps, and rumors of maps - never far from reach amid the push-pull of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - are again in sharp focus.

Stepping up US efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process by the year's end, the Clinton administration prodded Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the weekend to make haste and take sizable steps to implement the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

But just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was listening to caveats in Europe from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for a "credible" withdrawal from West Bank territory, his Cabinet minister most responsible for shaping the troop redeployment - ex-general Ariel Sharon - presented plans to effectively annex lands that Palestinians expect to be turned over to them in a final peace settlement.

Ms. Albright prodded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to make a 100 percent effort to fight terror. She also pressed Mr. Netanyahu to make an ample redeployment in the West Bank soon, indicating that the Near East log-jam was dragging down US foreign policy in the rest of the region.

"We want to make sure there is a combination of quality and quantity," Albright said of the redeployment at a news conference in Geneva with Mr. Arafat. Prompting Netanyahu for details and maps, which he reportedly did not provide, she said, "We can wait two weeks, but we certainly cannot wait a month."

Netanyahu said the redeployment, which he recommitted Israel to making in an accord with the Palestinians earlier this year, needed more time to germinate. "This is a step-by-step process in which there will be progress, but not necessarily in a day or two," he said.

While Netanyahu was discussing concepts with American officials, Mr. Sharon was anxious to be more specific. Though he did not say what percentage of land Israel would hand over to Palestinian control in the upcoming redeployment, he proposed the creation of two new security zones in the West Bank to protect the Jewish state.

The general's return

Though people have written Sharon's political epitaph many times, his career has taken on new prominence recently. After Netanyahu had tried to marginalize Sharon, he found that the senior Likud Party leader still held clout that the beleaguered Israeli premier has needed in times of domestic crisis.

To keep Sharon from rallying right-wing dissidents, Netanyahu instead had to draw him into the inner circle. Last week, Netanyahu placed Sharon on a four-member ministerial team to decide the scope of the redeployment. And as the veteran strategist on the panel with intimate knowledge of the land and his own maps, Sharon has quickly emerged as the man who will most likely decide what Israel's next move will be.

Assuming a pose he took for so many years as he led Israel in war - often with disastrous consequences, such as its controversial involvement in Lebanon's civil war - Sharon used maps and a metal pointer to gesture westward. From the edge of this Jewish settlement, the coastline of Tel Aviv is easily visible in the distance, a proximity that he says makes Israel too vulnerable to attack if it abdicates control of these strategic foothills.

"What percent? I don't think that's the question at all," says Sharon. "There are areas that are much more important for us and some that are more important for the Palestinians. Israel needs security zones."

The regions he proposed include a "western zone" of four to six miles along the Green Line - Israel's pre-1967 borders - and an "eastern zone" about 12 miles wide along the Jordan Valley.

In addition, Sharon said Israel would have two east-west security roads that would run perpendicular to the vertical zones, in effect creating a ring around areas under Palestinian autonomy.

Even the term "security zone" is a hot button. Israel's self-declared security zone in South Lebanon - where it wages a war of attrition with Shiite Muslim guerrillas - has become increasingly unpopular in Israel and is seen internationally as an occupation zone.

The army has suffered the worst year for casualties in Lebanon since 1985, sparking a new and growing political movement calling for unilateral withdrawal.

Location is everything

But what makes Sharon's proposal so potentially explosive is the demography of areas like this one. Just across the shallow valley from Paduel, a settlement of 500 Israelis, is the Palestinian village of Dir Ballut, population 2,300. Dir Ballut is in "Area B," the term the Oslo Accords gave to areas in which the Palestinian Authority can manage civilian affairs, but which are still under the control of the Israeli army.

Such regions were supposed to be a transitional status to be eventually phased into "Area A," which is under the exclusive control of the Palestinian Authority.

Now, Sharon says that many such Arab villages will have to remain as some kind of permanent Area B. This would not represent a change in the accords, he says, but would comprise necessary "adjustments or corrections."

But Palestinians leaders, who expect to gain almost all of the West Bank in a final peace settlement, are likely to declare such a reversal from previous commitments unacceptable. Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Authority's education minister, calls it "ridiculous."

"The Israelis are trying to create a unilateral paradigm," she says. "There are signed agreements as to when that redeployment should take place in the interim phase and it's not up to them to start rearranging them."

American officials have suggested that if the extent of the West Bank pullback is less than what Washington expects, the Clinton administration will not try to convince the Palestinians to accept it.

US officials have declined to specify what the administration expects, though Netanyahu's office has suggested recently that it was ready to make a substantial withdrawal that would satisfy the Palestinians.

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