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Opportunities for Real Progress Seen in New Round of Peace Talks

Middle East negotiators resumed their peace talks at the State Department this week in an atmosphere all agreed was more open, cordial and cooperative than at the previous five rounds.

But it is clear the sessions are a minefield of explosive conflicts that will require painstaking maneuvering to defuse to the satisfaction of all the parties.

“The change in atmosphere is like day and night,” said Keith Weissman, a scholar with the Center for Middle East Research in Washington. “Whether it will continue when the talks get down to brass tacks is unclear, but there is a potential for breakthroughs.”

“We see opportunities for real progress,” said Joe Snyder, a State Department spokesman. “But these negotiations involve complicated issues which can’t be resolved overnight.”

For Robert Satloff, analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the most hopeful sign so far has been the Syrian response to the Israeli delegation.

He said the Syrians offered “warmer words” than have ever before been heard as their response to Israel’s “reaffirmation of traditional Labor Party policy toward the Golan Heights.”

But he said the “big issue is to what extent are the Palestinians ready and able to get into the same ballpark with Israel and respond creatively” to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s detailed proposal for Palestinian autonomy.

In Jerusalem, Rabin himself cautioned Tuesday against expecting “miracles and shortcuts.”

“There are a lot of problems to solve in every one of the three parts of the negotiations, and it will take time to solve them,” he said, referring to the talks with Syria, Lebanon and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

PALESTINIANS ACKNOWLEDGE ‘NEW TONE’

The Palestinians, who arrived late in Washington in protest over Israel’s travel permit procedures, sounded an upbeat but cautious note Tuesday in their first public briefing.

Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi acknowledged a “new tone” and a series of “positive symbolic gestures” on the part of the Israelis, and pledged the Palestinians would “do our utmost to make the talks succeed.”

The Israeli government recently announced a host of confidence-building measures intended to “improve the atmosphere” for Arabs living in the territories, including the release of prisoners and the relaxation of travel restrictions.

At the same time, Ashrawi said the conciliatory gestures were simply efforts to right the wrongs of the Israeli occupation and must be looked at in that context.

She also warned that the issue of Jewish settlements and human rights abuses could be obstacles to progress in the talks and said that a loan guarantee deal between the United States and Israel has “introduced a new complication.”

Ashrawi said the Palestinians would seek assurances that “U.S. funds would not be used to subsidize illegal activities,” referring to the construction of Jewish settlements in the territories.

“While everyone is applauding” the decision by the Rabin government to halt the construction of 5,000 units of housing in the territories, there are 11,000 units being completed, Ashrawi said. “These are 11,000 obstacles to peace,” she said.

“Now is the time to be serious, careful and look at the small print,” she said. “What is at stake is the future of the people of the region,” she said.

Weissman of the Center for Middle East Research said the new and positive tone surrounding the talks can be attributed largely to the statement by Itamar Rabinovich, the new head of the Israeli negotiating team with Syria, that Israel would negotiate on the basis of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

The resolution calls on Israel to withdraw from land captured during the 1967 war in return for peace. But Israel’s previous government did not recognize the applicability of the resolution to the Golan Heights.

The spokeswoman for the Syrian delegation, which has called for the return of the entire Golan Heights, said this week that the embrace of 242 offers a new “opening” for the talks.

She praised the new tone in the discussions, calling it “reasonable and constructive” and affirmed Syria’s “genuine and profound seriousness” in the peace process.

NO NEED TO ‘STICK TO EVERY CENTIMETER’

In Israel, Rabin appeared eager Tuesday to mollify right-wing critics concerned that the Labor government will support a complete withdrawal from the Golan, considered a highly strategic area.

The prime minister told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he seeks a peace agreement with Syria in which Israel would give up part of the Golan but not necessarily return to the 1967 border.

At the same time, he said there is no reason to “stick to every centimeter in the Golan.”

Weissman said the Rabin government has tried hard to pave the way for true progress in the peace talks with gestures designed to lay a foundation of confidence.

He called Israel’s announcement of the release of 800 Palestinian prisoners a “calculated signal” to the Arabs, for whom the act represents a traditional gesture of good will.

“Once good will is established on some of the smaller issues,” said Weissman, “it makes it easier to move forward” on more difficult ones.

Weissman said the matter of the Golan will be much easier to resolve than the mechanisms for Palestinian autonomy.

Indeed, Rabin, while traveling through the West Bank on Tuesday, told reporters that one of the stumbling blocks in the negotiations with the Palestinians will be the powers of the administrative council Israel has proposed.

The Palestinians have offered a plan instead for a legislative body, which the Israelis oppose, calling it an “organ of statehood.”

Ashrawi said the Palestinians would like a serious response to their proposal and a chance to respond to a formal proposal by the Israeli side.

It will be a challenge for the Palestinian delegation to “get the maximum from Israel with the minimum opposition” from its diverse and fractious constituency, said Robert Freedman, a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and a board member of Americans for Peace Now, a dovish group.

“If they can cohere, they have a real opportunity,” he said.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem.)

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