Palestinian Track Gains Momentum While Talks with Syria Tread Water

The long-awaited ninth round of the Middle East peace talks seems to be confounding expectations.

While the often-problematic Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are finally starting to make substantive progress, the potentially promising Israeli-Syrian track is bogged down in a debate over definitions of terms.

“There have been a lot of surprises” in the talks thus far, said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now.

For one, the Israeli decision last week to allow 30 Palestinians deported between 1967 and 1987 back to their homes in the territories seems to have considerably brightened the mood both in Washington and the territories themselves.

“It was one of the few events since the beginning of the talks that was good P.R. for both the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group formed to provide an American platform for Israeli generals who advocate trading land for peace.

“It is very rare that something can happen that makes both sides look good,” he said.

The Palestinian negotiating team, many agree, needs such concrete results in the talks to strengthen its position against rejectionists at home, such as the fundamentalist Hamas group.

Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have expressed optimism in recent days that the talks will achieve some progress. That is a sharp contrast from two weeks ago, when it was still unclear whether the Palestinian delegation would even be returning for the new round of talks.

Of course, both sides recognize that the negotiations are a lengthy process, and the mood, as negotiators emerge to face the microphones and cameras outside the State Department, fluctuates from day to day.

UNILATERAL CONCESSIONS

Moreover, both sides acknowledge that the Israeli and Palestinian positions on many issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, remain at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Some experts expect further signs of a forthcoming attitude from the Israelis, who have already announced a series of concessions. But others suggest that the Israelis may be getting tired of making concessions and are waiting for the Arab parties to make gestures of their own.

“The general trend of the talks is that the Israelis are making one unilateral concession after another,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Council of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “I’m waiting for some response” from the Arab parties, he added.

In the Israeli-Syrian talks, meanwhile, negotiators spent a good part of the first week and a half trying to define their terms. The Syrians have said they are prepared to offer Israel “full peace” in exchange for a “full withdrawal” by Israel from the Golan Heights.

But the talks seemed snagged on what “full peace” and “full withdrawal” from the Golan really mean.

As each side waited for the other to go first, the negotiators also tried, with difficulty, to draft a new joint statement of principles that would attempt to define what they are seeking to accomplish.

Before the current round of talks began, the Israeli-Syrian negotiations were perceived by many observers as having the best potential for a quick breakthrough. Some are now wondering whether the lack of progress in the first several meetings here represents a deliberate go-slow strategy from either the Syrians or the Israelis.

Some, like Smerling, think the Syrians may be slowing things down to allow the Palestinian track to “catch up.”

Another observer of the peace process, however, suggested that perhaps it is the Israelis who are content to be “treading water” for a while on the Syrian track, while giving higher priority to the Palestinian track because of the volatile situation in the territories.

‘YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH’

But some still see the Syrian track as the one to focus on, noting that the Syrian negotiators, unlike their Palestinian counterparts, represent an existing government with a pragmatic outlook.

With Syrian President Hafez Assad, Pipes said, at least “you know who you’re dealing with.” He contrasted that situation with the Palestinian negotiators, whose authority to speak for their own people is sometimes in question.

And while Palestinian public opinion sometimes “veers to the extreme,” Pipes said, Syrian policies tend to be “pragmatic, not radical.”

The Jordanian and Lebanese talks, most agree, are of secondary priority. Any agreement with the Lebanese will have to wait until an accord is reached with Syria, experts say, and a similar situation exists for the Jordanians vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Another potentially crucial factor in this new round of talks is the role of the Americans, who, along with the Russians, are serving as co-sponsors.

The United States is working to keep the Palestinians at the talks by offering them something to take back to their constituency.

For example, the Palestinians announced last week that the Americans would be providing them with information on Israeli settlement activity in the territories.

The Israelis played this news down, saying that if the Palestinians wanted more information on Israeli settlement policies than what the Israelis had already given them, that was not a problem.

Buffeted by domestic pressures and difficult security situations at home, the Israelis and Palestinians are starting to see the importance of bolstering their opposite numbers.

“Negotiations start to take off,” Smerling said, “when the negotiators realize that it is in their interest to strengthen the domestic position of the people across the table.”

Here in Washington, he said, the parties are “getting to that point. It’s not far off.”

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