Israelis and Arabs Still Far Apart, but Intend to Negotiate Seriously

As the fifth round of Middle East peace talks got under way here, both Israelis and Palestinians expressed a desire to negotiate seriously and achieve progress on autonomy for the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But both sides are still far apart, as demonstrated by the two different proposals they are offering for elections in the territories.

Israel is offering municipal elections as a first step, while the Palestinians want to elect an autonomy regime before deciding on any other elections.

The Israeli proposal, presented to the Palestinians on Monday, was described by Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an offer “to have pilot municipal elections.”

While refusing to go into any details during a briefing for reporters, Netanyahu maintained the proposal is one “which we think will set the stage for further development in this area.”

Netanyahu, who works in the Prime Minister’s Office, added that “there is no question in my mind that there is a tremendous readiness in the Palestinian Arab population in the territories to espouse it.”

As proof, he pointed out that since the Arab-Israeli peace talks began in Madrid last fall, there have been 30 elections for chambers of commerce, university student and faculty bodies, and unions and other organizations in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. He said the turnout was about 90 percent for these elections.

TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES

But Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, claimed Monday that the Palestinians are already entitled to have municipal elections by law.

She said that the last such elections in 1976 were dissolved by Israel after members of the Palestine Liberation Organization were elected in various communities.

Moreover, the municipal elections only included 30 percent of the Arab residents of the territories, she said.

Ashrawi said the Palestinians proposed elections for an autonomy regime in the last round of talks in Washington and that should be the way to go, since the negotiations deal with autonomy.

She said the elections should be held by the end of September so that the autonomy regime could be in place by the end of November, as envisioned at the Madrid talks.

The differences over elections reflect the gap between the two sides on how autonomy should be reached.

Israel wants to achieve it by a set of building blocks in which agreements are reached first on various administrative and judicial rights, in which the Palestinians would be able to govern their daily lives. This includes autonomy in such areas as industry, health, justice, education and transportation.

The Palestinians want to set up an overall self-government authority that would have executive and legislative powers. The Israelis see this as a step toward a Palestinian state, rather than autonomy.

Regardless of their deep differences, both Israel and the Palestinians refrained from the name-calling of the last four rounds of bilateral talks and stressed their desire to move ahead.

While they continued to level charges of violence against each other, these were soft-pedaled. Both sides also denied that Israel’s June 23 elections will be a hindrance to making progress at the peace talks.

PRODDING FROM THE UNITED STATES

“Our objectives here is to make progress, concrete progress,” Netanyahu stressed. He said he hoped this would be achieved before the current round of talks ends Thursday.

Ashrawi said the Palestinians “are sincerely committed to this process” and believe there is a “distinct possibility” of moving forward in the talks.

Their attitude may also reflect pressure from the United States. Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, met Sunday with Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Israeli delegation for the Palestinian-Jordanian talks, and with Palestinian delegates Monday.

He reportedly told them it was time to end posturing and get down to negotiations.

In a speech Sunday night, Djerejian urged the parties to “focus on those differences that need to be narrowed and to try to find common ground.”

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday that the United States will not get involved in the specific proposals being offered, including elections.

But department officials have said the United States intends to continue serving as a catalyst, even after the bilateral talks shift to Rome for the next round.

Tutwiler said that even if no substantive agreements have been concluded, the peace talks have been successful so far just by virtue of the fact that they are continuing.

“With the opening of the fifth round of bilaterals, direct Israeli-Arab negotiations are becoming a normal part of the landscape,” she said. “That’s a remarkable development” and the first step toward substantive progress.

The negotiations will “be a hard, step-by-step process,” she said. “No one can expect immediate breakthroughs.”

LEVY TO MEET WITH BAKER

She added: “What’s important to keep in mind is that all of the parties are showing seriousness and a willingness to begin to engage in substance. We will be encouraging them to continue to do so during the current round and to begin to narrow their differences on substantive issues.”

Tutwiler also announced that invitations for the upcoming multilateral talks on Middle East regional issues were being delivered Monday in the various Arab and Israeli capitals.

Neither Netanyahu nor Ashrawi would comment on the five sets of multilateral talks. Israel has threatened to boycott any session in which diaspora Palestinians participate.

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who is in the United States on a private visit, was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State James Baker on Tuesday.

Netanyahu said the meeting would focus not only on the peace talks but on bilateral issues between the United States and Israel.

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