News Analysis: Palestinian Leaders Taking Cues from the Street About Peace Talks

Palestinians in the administered territories are awaiting the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher here Monday in their all-too-familiar position: sitting on the fence.

If it were up to the Palestine Liberation Organization and its representatives in the territories, the negotiators would catch the earliest plane to Washington and return to the Middle East peace talks.

But Palestinians “in the street” are no longer solidly behind PLO-directed leaders such as Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.

The last time Palestinian politics was firmly within the control of these secular nationalists was in November 1991, after the peace conference in Madrid.

Since then, ordinary Palestinians have drifted away from their traditional leadership, toward the extremes. The shift has meant a rise in popularity and strength for the Islamic fundamentalist movement, led by the Hamas organization.

There is no love lost between the secular and the fundamentalist Palestinian leaders in the territories. But when Israel deported 415 Hamas activists and supporters to Lebanon in December, the PLO and its affiliated leadership in the territories were forced to show complete solidarity with them. The “street” demanded it.

As long as the deportees had complete support in the international arena and the United Nations was threatening sanctions, there was no Palestinian dilemma.

PRESSURE FROM EGYPT, SYRIA

But now that the United Nations has, in effect, endorsed Israel’s compromise offer to accept back 101 deportees, Palestinian leaders face a difficult question: whether or not to resume the peace process without having achieved full reversal of the deportations.

Their Arab brethren, Egypt in particular but also Syria, are pressing the Palestinians to join the peace bandwagon.

In a series of intensive diplomatic consultations among Arab leaders since the beginning of the month, the Palestinians received a clear message: Now that Israel owed the new American administration for helping it in the deportees crisis, it might be easier to squeeze concessions out of Israel.

The Palestinians have again been warned not to miss an opportunity.

But the “street” seems to want nothing less than all of the deportees returned before the Palestinian delegation can rejoin the peace talks. And the leaders have been forced to follow the will of their people.

“We are finished if we do it,” said Radi Jarai, a member of the advisory board to the Palestinian delegation.

Ironically, even the leader of the deportees in Lebanon, Dr. Abdul Aziz Ghantissi, made a moderate statement recently.

Welcoming a statement by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that the deportations were not “a policy, but rather an exception to a policy,” Ghantissi went on record as saying that if Israel “denounced” the expulsions, the deportees would “re-evaluate” their stand.

SETTLING FOR 20 PERCENT

Israel, of course, did not denounce a move backed by nearly the entire Cabinet. But Ghantissi’s statement was seen as an indication that the deportees themselves are ready for a settlement that would not necessarily return all of them home immediately.

But the “street” apparently speaks even stronger than the deportees themselves.

“The peace process will reach the end of the road now” if a U.N. Security Council resolution insisting on the deportees’ return “is not implemented immediately,” Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian peace delegation, wrote in the East Jerusalem daily Al-Kuds.

“If we accept the return of 101 deportees, which amounts to 20 percent of the total number of deportees,” delegation member Saeb Erekat said at a rally in eastern Jerusalem, “they will ask us in the future to settle for 20 percent of Resolution 242,” the U.N. document outlining the land-for-peace principle.

Following the Security Council’s Feb. 12 decision to strike the deportation issue from its agenda, Nasser al-Kidwa, the PLO representative to the United Nations, ruled out continued peace talks unless the deportees were all returned home.

Time is running out for the Palestinians. As Christopher headed for the Middle East last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reiterated that Israel is ready for a territorial compromise on the Golan Heights, a clear signal to the Palestinians that there are other partners to the peace talks.

For the time being, the Palestinian leaders are refusing to read that signal. They want to join the peace process but are afraid of being ambushed by the growing support for the Moslem fundamentalists.

And so they sit on the fence, fearing disaster on either side. It will be Christopher’s job to coax them down — on the right side.

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