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Israelis and Palestinians at Odds over How to Negotiate Autonomy

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, back in Washington this week for another round of bilateral talks, say they are ready to negotiate the terms of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But they are at odds about how to approach the issue.

The Israelis want to build an autonomy plan on a piece-by-piece basis, while the Palestinians want to have the complete model first and then argue over individual details.

During the negotiations here last month, the Palestinians proposed a model for self-government that would include legislative, executive and judicial powers.

When the talks resumed here Monday, the Israelis argued that the two sides instead should begin discussing self-rule arrangements in such areas as transportation, local security and religious affairs.

“We will take them one by one,” explained Yosef Ben-Aharon, who heads the overall Israeli delegation to the peace talks.

Some analysts have suggested that the Israelis are stalling and have not offered a comprehensive autonomy plan because the Likud government is still divided over whether to offer self-rule to the Palestinians.

Others see no movement in the negotiations — not only with the Palestinians, but also with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — until after the Israeli elections in June.

PALESTINIANS ENVISION LEGISLATURE

But Ben-Aharon rejected these interpretations. He said Israel believes that the best way to deal with autonomy is to agree on each of the factors that will eventually make up self-rule, rather than work from a complete model.

He also said that, while there is no deadline for an agreement on self-rule, he did not believe the elections would set back the timetable.

The Palestinian model was only offered as an opening proposal for negotiations. But the Israelis are expected to reject its inclusion of East Jerusalem in the self-governing area.

The proposal itself would give the Palestinians more self-rule than Israel appears ready to grant, including legislative authority. The self-governing authority would completely replace the current Israeli military and civilian authority in the territories.

Israel is ready to give the Palestinians control over their daily lives, but not over the territory itself.

The Palestinian model calls for a 180-member legislative assembly elected by Arab residents of the territories, as well as Palestinians deported since 1967 — a proposal Israel is sure to reject.

The assembly would elect the chairman of a 20-member executive council, who would in turn nominate the other 19 members.

The plan also calls for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the territories before the elections, which would be internationally supervised.

But the Palestinians have argued that even before negotiations on their proposal can be held, the Israelis must first stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Elyakim Rubinstein, who heads the Israeli team negotiating with the Palestinians, reiterated Tuesday that the future of the settlements should be discussed in the second phase of negotiations, when the final status of the territories is to be decided.

CONCERN ABOUT U.S. INTERVENTION

The Israeli-Palestinian talks are following the parameters of the Camp David accords, which called for the establishment of a self-rule arrangement in the territories for an interim period. Three to five years after it is in place, talks would begin on the final status of the territories.

This is one of the arguments Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has made in refusing to accept the U.S. call for a settlement freeze.

But Secretary of State James Baker made clear in testimony to Congress this week that the United States feels strongly about this issue.

As a result, Israel is now concerned that the Bush administration might depart from its role as neutral host and try to involve itself directly in the peace talks. The Israelis point out that the start of this round of negotiations was postponed a week until after Baker returned from abroad.

The Palestinians, as well as the Arab countries, would like the United States to weigh in on their side. Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinians, said the United States should make proposals to “bridge” differences.

Israeli delegation chief Ben-Aharon made clear Monday that Israel would have serious problems with such intervention.

“These are direct negotiations” in which each side must know that it has to address itself “exclusively to the other side,” he said. “We hope very much that they will remain direct negotiations.”

Back in December when the first round of talks in Washington began, the Israeli delegation delayed its participation for a week in part to stress to the Arabs that the United States cannot deliver Israeli concessions.

ISRAELIS PUSHING VENUE CHANGE

The Israelis are also stressing that after the current round of talks in Washington, the negotiations must move to the Middle East.

Ben-Aharon said that while the Israelis enjoy being in Washington, the U.S. capital is “6,000 miles away from our part of the world. And we have had to travel this distance again to talk peace with our immediate neighbors.”

He expressed the hope that the Arabs would agree to move the dialogue to the Middle East, “where it belongs, so that our people and their people will see that there is a beginning of change.”

Rubinstein said that at the Bush administration’s request, the Israelis submitted a list of possible sites closer to the Middle East for the continuation of negotiations. He said none of the Arab delegations had done so yet.

Rubinstein said this was not U.S. interference because from the beginning it was agreed that the U.S. would help on the venue choice.

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