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News Analysis: Israeli Talks with Palestinians Offer the Best Hope for Progress

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When Israel begins face-to-face negotiations with its Arab adversaries next week, the area most likely to see real progress is the Palestinian issue.

Following this week’s ceremonial opening session in Madrid, devoted largely to speeches, Israel will begin separate negotiations with Syria, Lebanon and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Few observers expect any real progress with Syria, since President Hafez Assad has made clear he is not interested in peace with Israel.

Assad’s only goal is to get all of the Golan Heights back, something which Israel rejects. Even the opposition Labor Party is against total withdrawal from the Golan, since the memory of how kibbutzim in northern Galilee were shelled before 1967 is still fresh.

As for Lebanon, even if it had a government that could make a binding decision, the country is now fully under the dominance of Syria. The Israelis have not forgotten how a 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanon, hammered out by Secretary of State George Shultz, was sabotaged by Syria.

Beirut wants the Israel Defense Force to abandon its border security zone in southern Lebanon, but Israel is unwilling to do so until there is a force capable of preventing terrorist groups operating in the region from launching attacks against the Jewish state.

But the Palestinian issue holds hope for success, according to Robert Satloff, assistant director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

That is because there is agreement not to talk now about the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip but to negotiate an interim period of self-rule for the Palestinians, Satloff said.

TALKS TO FOCUS ON SELF-RULE

While the Palestinians may make speeches about their demands for a Palestinian state, they have agreed that the actual negotiations will be about self-rule, Satloff explained.

This is essentially the Camp David formula in which Israel and the Palestinians will only discuss the final status of the West Bank after three years of self-rule.

This is the right approach and can succeed if done properly, said Sol Linowitz, a Washington lawyer who between 1979 and 1981 was the Carter administration’s envoy to Israeli-Egyptian negotiations on Palestinian autonomy.

“A lot was achieved between 1978 and 1981,” Linowitz said in an interview. He explained that the parties were 80 percent of the way to achieving autonomy, with agreements on 25 major areas, including such matters as police, taxation, budget, agriculture and refugee rehabilitation.

“It is too bad that over 10 years have elapsed” without building on the progress made, Linowitz said. When the Reagan administration entered office in 1981, it dropped the idea of a special envoy.

Nevertheless, Israel has continued to offer autonomy as an alternative to any withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian autonomy was the heart of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s May 1989 peace plan.

That plan floundered when the Palestinians insisted on including residents of East Jerusalem in talks aimed at implementing its first stage: free elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel was opposed to their inclusion and to the Arabs’ insistence on an international conference.

These concerns remained when Secretary of State James Baker revived efforts to bring about negotiations in the aftermath of the U.S. success in the Persian Gulf War.

But Israel ultimately felt it had to accept a conference, and the Palestinians, with the Palestine Liberation Organization weakened because of its support for Saddam Hussein, had to give in on East Jerusalem representation.

POLICY OF MINIMAL INTERFERENCE

Linowitz said he hopes Israel will make its autonomy offer from the point he left off in 1981, in return for such concessions as an end to the intifada and a relaxation of the Arab League boycott against Israel.

But the issues that were unsolved in 1981 remain unsolved, Linowitz said. In addition to the status of East Jerusalem Arabs, they include security arrangements and the status of existing Jewish settlements in the territories.

These are all issues that can be left for the final-status talks that will take place once an autonomy plan is implemented, Satloff said.

Even Israeli officials who are opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza Strip have maintained that no one knows what the situation will be after Jews and Arabs have gone through a period of confidence-building as a result of Palestinian self-rule.

Autonomy as envisioned by the Israelis would allow Palestinians to go through their daily lives with minimal interference from Israeli authorities.

Palestinians would have control over such areas as education, local transportation, administration of justice, municipal affairs, agriculture, industry, trade and tourism.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens has already taken a step toward minimal interference by moving Israeli forces out of the major Arab population centers, except when necessary.

But there is little disagreement in Israel that no matter what happens in the territories, Israel must retain some kind of presence in the West Bank and Gaza to protect its security.

This means at the minimum that Israeli troops would have to be deployed along the eastern slopes of the West Bank mountain ridge and that early-warning and intelligence-gathering systems would have to be installed.

SHAMIR REJECTS SETTLEMENT FREEZE

The Palestinians could torpedo the negotiations by demanding a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements, something the Shamir government refuses to do.

Shamir said Sunday, in an interview with the Cable News Network, that the issue of settlements will be resolved automatically once there is an agreement with the Arabs on Israel’s boundaries.

It is not clear what pressure the United States will exercise in Israel’s negotiations with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and during the other bilateral talks. The United States has said it will be outside the door, ready to help, if asked by the parties.

Israel would like the United States to stay outside at the start. But U.S. participation is expected before the final i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.

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