Palestinian trust key to Israel security

As Israel's new Prime Minister Ehud Barak forms his first government he must also deal with a Middle East that has some enticing possibilities for peacemaking - and is also full of risk. The most evident possibilities are those related to a land-for-peace deal with Syria, where President Hafez al-Asad has exchanged encouraging signals with Mr. Barak in recent weeks.

The risks are mainly those related to further stagnation - or worse - in the Palestinian situation. Five-and-a-half years after the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), many Palestinians judge that their negotiators there won them a badly flawed deal.

The PLO agreed at Oslo to enter an open-ended, five-year interim phase, in which most of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza could exercise partial self-government. Israelis and their friends had long argued such an interim phase could build the confidence that would later enable the parties to negotiate final-status arrangements.

The five-year interim ended May 4 - and far from increasing, the Palestinians' confidence in the peace process has instead been massively eroded. What happened?

*The Palestinians saw a hard-line Israeli government under outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stall repeatedly in the negotiations. As a result, the final-status situation that was supposed to begin in May has not even started to be discussed seriously at the negotiating table.

*The Palestinians, meanwhile, saw Mr. Netanyahu's government transforming West Bank geography by building modern highways to link the Israeli settlements to a network of enhanced economic opportunity, while choking the Palestinians' self-ruled cities off from each other, and from their natural hinterlands.

*The Palestinians judged that the US - sponsor of the peace talks - never exacted any real price from Netanyahu for these actions. Many Palestinians feel bitter, too, that PLO leader Yasser Arafat seemed to acquiesce to Netanyahu. The result?

"We were better off under direct Israeli occupation," one frustrated Palestinian professor says. "Now Israel tells Arafat what to do and he imposes it on us for them. It was better when things were more clear-cut."

Simple drives in and around Jerusalem show the difficulties for Palestinians in their continuing, and very vulnerable, situation of interim self-rule. For starters, Israel under both the previous Labor government and under Netanyahu worked hard to cut the 180,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem off from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) that now administers all other Palestinian cities. So Jerusalem - which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their national capital - is ringed on three sides by Israeli checkpoints that keep Palestinians from PNA areas out of the city. The people of Bethlehem, who have deep ties with Jerusalem, have been hit hard by this - as, too, by Israel's new settlements and roads cutting it of from neighbors.

The West Bank is a leopard-skin of "spots" of control: Palestinian self-rule (Area A), full Israeli control (C), or somewhere in between (B). Driving from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Jifna, one drives through a dizzying array of areas C, A, C, B, C, B. Anywhere in C, the Israelis can impose a checkpoint at will. In B, only after informing local Palestinian officials.

The effect of the checkpoints, and Israel's other control mechanisms, has been economic stagnation, continued Palestinian humiliation, and a clearly mounting sense of Palestinian frustration. Hope for a decent coexistence with Israel, expressed by many Palestinians after Oslo, seems to have dissipated long ago.

Can Barak, and the more hopeful Israel he represents, do enough to restore the confidence in peacemaking that his predecessor did so much to destroy? He'll need to argue forcefully to doubting Israelis that their security is served best by having decent, hope-filled relations with all its neighbors - and that includes, closest to home, the Palestinians. As a distinguished former general, he is well placed to make these arguments, and to follow through on them. The US should urge him to do so - soon.

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