JERUSALEM (Aug. 23)
The Israeli government has announced a series of concessions to the Palestinians, in an apparent effort to “sweeten the pot” at this week’s peace talks in Washington.
The move, which evoked sharp criticism from opposition politicians, was announced as the Palestinian delegation prepared to leave for Washington by way of Amman, after resolving a two-day tiff with Israeli border authorities that threatened to delay the negotiations.
Their departure, 48 hours later than planned, could mean a day’s postponement in the opening of the Israeli-Palestinian talks. But separate Israeli talks with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan were expected to begin on schedule Monday morning.
This round of negotiations is the first since Israel’s new government took office following the Labor Party’s June 23 election victory over the right-wing Likud, led by Yitzhak Shamir.
Pressing ahead with its more flexible posture toward the territories, Jerusalem on Sunday announced a series of measures easing conditions for Palestinians. They included:
* the release of 800 prisoners, none of them sentenced for murder, who have served more than two-thirds of their terms;
* the reopening of houses sealed off in punitive measures five years ago and earlier;
* the gradual reopening of streets and alleys closed off by the army in commercial and residential areas; and
* lowering from 60 to 50 the age at which Arabs from the territories are exempt from an entry permit requirement to enter Israel for work or trade.
‘UNILATERAL AND HASTY GESTURES’
A spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said these measures would not slow down the fight against terrorism. But opposition politicians took vigorous exception.
The National Religious Party said the “unilateral and hasty gestures made by the government toward the terrorists amount to a new peak of government insensitivity.”
Rehavam Ze’evi, leader of the far-right Moledet party, said Rabin had failed to learn the lesson of his mistake in 1985 in ordering the release of more than 1,000 terrorists as part of a prisoner exchange.
That deal “cost the lives of many Israelis and led to the outbreak of the intifada,” he said.
Likud Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi described the measures as tantamount to an “invitation to further acts of terror.”
He urged a motion of no-confidence in the government when the Knesset reconvenes in October.
Rabin’s office said in a statement that the concessions to the Palestinians would be introduced gradually and were intended to “improve the atmosphere among the Arab population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
The statement expressed the hope that the measures “will have a positive contribution on the willingness of the Palestinian population to support the progress of the peace negotiations.”
The Israeli delegation to the peace talks arrived in Washington on Sunday.
Upon its departure Saturday night from Ben-Gurion Airport, Itamar Rabinovich, heading the negotiations with Syria, said a demand by Damascus for unconditional withdrawal from the Golan Heights would make it impossible for Israel to offer even goodwill gestures.
Jerusalem indicated last week that it was prepared for limited territorial concessions on the Golan Heights. But Rabin reportedly instructed negotiators to make no concessions at all unless Syria makes it clear that it intends to negotiate a full peace with Israel.
MAY NOT GET ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY
Unlike the sporadic meetings that followed the opening of the peace talks in Madrid last October, the Washington round is due to proceed continuously for 35 days.
At the same time, the U.S. presence will be more low-key given the intense election campaign and the absence of James Baker, whose close involvement in the negotiations as secretary of state has necessarily diminished with his move to the White House as chief of staff, which became effective Sunday.
A noticeable difference between this round and those preceding is the more flexible tone set by the Rabin administration. It is urging implementation of Palestinian autonomy — limited self-rule — within a year.
Palestinians grappling with their stand on the negotiations were warned Sunday not to pass up an opportunity that might not return.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said the Palestinians would not get a more moderate government than the present one.
“If they miss an opportunity of reaching an agreement with this government, no one knows when they will get a second chance,” he said.
The 29-member Palestinian delegation crossed into Amman on Sunday, en route to the United States, stating that this time it had no problems crossing the Allenby Bridge, according to news reports from the Jordanian capital.
Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi was quoted as saying, “All of us were able to make it without having to sign any paper, seek any permit or face any delay and with full respect from Israel.”
A PUBLIC RELATIONS STUNT?
The Palestinians, who are negotiating with Israel in a joint delegation with Jordan, turned back Friday to protest Israeli rules that held up the crossing of five support staff members because they lacked certain permits.
They left for Amman only after intensive negotiations with Washington, which reportedly promised that they would enjoy respectful treatment.
Israeli sources termed the Palestinian protest more of a public relations stunt than a matter of substance. Israeli regulations require a special pass for Arabs under the age of 35 who leave and wish to return in less than nine months.
Although the Israelis were ready to issue the passes on the spot, allowing the delegation to proceed to Amman and join the Jordanian delegation to the talks, the Palestinians turned back to Jerusalem for consultations and intensive contacts with Washington.
Facing the Palestinians in Washington are Israel’s proposals for a target date of April 1, 1993 for general elections in the territories, with interim deadlines of Dec. 1 and Feb. 1 for agreement on the structure and the responsibilities of a newly set up administrative council.
Israel opposes Palestinian proposals for a 180-member legislative body and seeks instead a smaller administrative council with areas of responsibility for the West Bank, in the spirit of the 1979 Camp David accords.
The interim self-governing council would be in place for a period of five years, with talks to begin in the third year on the permanent status of the areas.