Mideast talks: The clock is ticking

Palestinians, Israelis must decide by tomorrow on US proposals. At stake are years of progress toward peace.

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian grappling at the negotiating table has yielded one clear result: The course of Middle Eastern peacemaking in the next few years will likely be determined this week - or at the very latest, by early February.

After nearly a week of intense negotiations, President Clinton gave Israelis and Palestinians until Wednesday to respond to US proposals meant to bridge the gap between them.

But Mr. Clinton's deadline is not the only date that the two sides must keep in mind. An Israeli election, set for Feb. 6, casts an even longer shadow over their talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned Sunday that if his nation delays now, "cracks will appear in other peace agreements" and in five years it will face "an entirely new Middle East," a reference to Israeli fears about its Arab neighbors acquiring more sophisticated weapons and the emergence of Islamist political groups.

The election for prime minister will be a battle between two contrasting visions of the future. It confronts Israelis - and Palestinians - with a major decision.

Israelis will have to choose between Barak, who has promised but not yet delivered a final peace deal with the Palestinians, and his opponent Ariel Sharon, who says the best way to manage relations with the Palestinians is through a drawn-out series of "interim" arrangements.

Barak has placed his political hopes on reaching an agreement, wagering that Israelis will keep him in office if he can bring home a deal. Mr. Sharon, from the right-wing Likud party, says he won't honor many of Barak's negotiating positions if he is elected. Though Israelis will go to the polls to elect one of these men, in many ways Palestinians could determine which one wins.

If Palestinians reach a deal with Barak in the next six weeks, voters will probably keep him in office, and the business of implementing an agreement, however creaky and imperfect, will move forward. If Palestinians reject the US proposal, polls here suggest voters disillusioned with failed negotiations and renewed violence will likely turn to Sharon.

Palestinian negotiators have been critical of Barak's past peace offerings, saying that he has not implemented existing agreements and has backed expanded settlement construction. Negotiations at Camp David in July broke down over these and other differences.

But if the Palestinians can't do business with Barak, says Mark Heller at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, "there's no chance they'll get a better offer from Sharon."

Both Barak and Sharon are generals, bulldog tenacious and battle-hardened. But Palestinians particularly dislike Sharon, who has been found personally responsible by an Israeli commission for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in a Lebanese refugee camp.

The current violence began Sept. 28, after Sharon paid a visit under armed escort to Jerusalem's Temple Mount - the holiest site in Judaism, which is also the third holiest site in Islam, and known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

If Sharon becomes Israel's next prime minister, Israelis and Palestinians "will be left with this situation of an endless peace process periodically interrupted by bouts of violence," says Mr. Heller. "It will never be cut off completely, because neither side wants to be seen as signing the death warrant on peace."

Mr. Clinton's proposals tackle the most emotional and divisive issues. Israeli media report that they call for the Israelis to give up control over parts of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

These are areas in which Palestinians already have de facto control, as Israelis seldom venture into the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and a Palestinian-led religious authority wields day-to-day control over the religious site.

In exchange, Palestinians would agree to waive their refugees' "right of return" to lands taken by Israel when the state was founded in 1948 and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians would also declare an end to all demands on Israel.

Israeli officials have also told the media that Israel would withdraw from 94 or 95 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Critics on both sides derided the plan. Sharon said that Barak's compromises "endanger the existence of the country."

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of a Palestinian faction founded by Yasser Arafat, has called for a new "intifada government," that takes a harder negotiating stance and gives militantly anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas more of a voice.

While he said he wasn't suggesting a leadership change, Mr. Barghouti told reporters that Palestinians need new negotiators and tactics. The issue of refugees could be the greatest stumbling block. The US plan calls for them to be resettled overseas, to remain in their host countries, or be absorbed into the new Palestinian state.

Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi says these measures are incomplete and that Palestinians are "not willing to relinquish 'right of return' in exchange for Jerusalem."

Heller says that Palestinians have to let go of the "right of return," not least because Israel will never agree. "It's a sacred-cow issue for Palestinians," he says. "Israel has slaughtered most of its sacred cows by now - including the division of Jerusalem." But Israel won't give way on refugees because "there's a clear sense that [a massive influx of refugees would] strike at Israel's ability to continue to exist as a state."

Palestinians insist that the refugees' rights must be acknowledged. "There's something called international law that applies to all people and all refugees," counters Ms. Ashrawi. "Israel has to acknowledge that right, and then we'll work out the implementation, but they cannot deny it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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