Tall order: Rebuild trust in collapsed Mideast peace talks

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators make one last try for an accord that could determine Israeli elections.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began yet another round of peace talks Sunday, in an 11th-hour attempt to reach agreement before Israeli elections, just three weeks away.

Should the 10-day talks in Egypt fail to yield results, analysts say the Middle East peace process will have reached an impasse that requires nothing less than a complete overhaul.

The talks have lost one of their most committed supporters with the end of Bill Clinton's term as US president. Both the Israeli and Palestinian public display deep ambivalence about a deal under the Clinton proposals. And to different degrees, the ongoing conflict has left both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat weaker.

Violence has also soured trust and hardened positions on both sides, but commentators say the most serious casualty of this ongoing conflict may be the 1993 Oslo accord that brought Israelis and Palestinians this far in the first place.

"Oslo has lost its legitimacy," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, speaking of the agreement that structured the progress of peace talks. "And attempts to reach a final status agreement haven't worked at all. There is a big question - What is the right framework to continue. We have to continue negotiating, but what do we use? Both previous frameworks are broken."

Also broken, ordinary people on both sides say, is trust for the other as a peace partner. Palestinians and Israelis blame each other for the ongoing violence, and each victim deepens the mutual sense of distrust. Most recently, Israelis have been angered by the death of an Israeli teenager allegedly lured to his death in a Palestinian town by a woman he met over the Internet.

For Israelis, the sense of threat is sometimes very immediate. Newspapers often report on unexploded bombs discovered in residential and commercial neighborhoods. In a recent poll, 44 percent said that security, not the peace process, would determine whom they will vote for in the Feb. 6 election for prime minister.

Mr. Barak promised Israelis peace, but has failed to deliver and is trailing badly in polls. The leading candidate, Likud party's Ariel Sharon, is loathed in the Arab world for his involvement in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians in a refugee camp there.

In the past, Barak's team used the possibility of a Sharon victory to pressure the Palestinians to come to an agreement. Now, the Israeli leader is publicly pessimistic about the chances of reaching a deal. He has sent his "peace cabinet" to negotiate because it provides him with one last chance to present the public with peace. It also would have been hard to refuse the Palestinian request for talks.

Israeli analysts say that Palestinians pursued these talks because they want to nail down the framework for future talks under the new US administration. Mr. Sharon's probable victory gives them good reason to do so. Under Mr. Clinton's plan, Palestinians would establish a state in the Gaza Strip, 95 percent of the West Bank, and Arab parts of Jerusalem. The Palestinians accepted the plan in principle, but have reservations, which they will discuss at the current talks.

If Sharon wins, he would pursue a plan that gives Palestinians a state on 42 percent of the territories and no control over any Jerusalem neighborhood, among other things.

Both sides are clear about their limits. As negotiations were set to begin, Barak issued a statement reaffirming the "red lines" he would not cross.

These included a refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to land inside Israel or to give Palestinians sovereignty over an area holy to both Muslims and Jews. Barak also insists that 80 percent of settlements remain under Israeli control.

Palestinians are equally adamant about their minimum requirements, insisting that any peace deal incorporate United Nations resolutions calling for the return of refugees and for Israel to hand back land seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"The road to peace means implementing the [UN] Security Council resolutions," says Kadoura Fares, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "The Israelis have a problem - they don't see that real peace can only happen by implementing the resolutions."

Mr. Fares sees the current talks as a test for the Oslo framework. "If there's no success in these 10 days, then Oslo is dead because Sharon will win," Fares says.

Palestinians no longer trust Israelis as peace partners, says Fares, because they believe Israelis consistently failed to fulfill their obligations under the Oslo peace accord. Today, polls show a high level of support among Palestinians for continuing the intifada and for a recent series of executions of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority held these public executions after Israel assassinated a series of high-ranking Palestinians. The executed men were accused of helping the Israeli Army find its targets.

Some analysts see the executions as a sign of cracks in Mr. Arafat's authority. They argue that the executions are an attempt to display an iron-fisted strength to his own society. Many Palestinians speak of their unhappiness with the corruption under Arafat and how little years of peace talks have changed their daily lives.

This intifada has seen the rise of small militia acting independently of the Palestinian Authority, and last week one of Arafat's confidants was assassinated, apparently by a small Palestinian group.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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