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Israelis Baffled by Mixed Signals Coming from Palestinian Negotiators

While Israeli officials are generally pleased with the way the negotiations here are progressing, they are baffled by the mixed signals the Palestinians are sending.

On Wednesday, for instance, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi gave a fairly upbeat briefing for reporters during which she described the talks with Israel as “substantive and businesslike.”

She said the Palestinians have found during this round of negotiations there is a willingness on the part of the Israelis to “discuss issues previously considered taboo or undiscussable.”

But later the same day, the Palestinians announced they were suspending discussions with the Israelis in the joint working group on human rights issues until next week.

Israeli delegation spokesman Yossi Gal, in a statement Thursday, responded to the move with “dismay and regret.”

Gal said that the Palestinians had “opted not to continue the work of the committee before the question of the review of the 400 deportees is resolved.”

He was referring to the fate of some 400 Palestinians whom Israel deported to Lebanon last December. The issue delayed the start of the current round of peace talks by a week and threatens to disrupt it further if the matter remains unresolved.

Briefing reporters Thursday, Gal expressed bafflement as to why the Palestinians would suspend discussions of the working group on human rights, since they were the ones that requested the panel in the first place.

“It does not make sense,” he said.

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When asked what the Israelis felt about the Palestinian desire to return home with some concrete accomplishments, such as an end to the closure of the territories, Gal said that such issues would have been discussed in the now-suspended human rights working group.

He asked how “our Palestinian friends” could expect the Israelis to deal with these concerns if they suspend the talks on those issues.

But Gal said he was in accord with the Palestinians on one issue.

He said he agreed with Ashrawi that it was impossible to assess the progress of the talks on a daily basis because the two sides were now dealing with serious “core issues” of the negotiations.

While attention here was focused on the Palestinian track, there were signs of possible progress in the negotiations between Israel and Lebanon.

Gal said the Israelis had presented a proposal to the Lebanese this week that provides a “political contour for dealing with the outstanding security issues between us.”

The plan reportedly includes an Israeli pledge to withdraw from the border security zone it controls in southern Lebanon if security arrangements can be made to prevent guerilla attacks on Israel’s northern border.

Richard Haass, the chief Middle East expert in the Bush administration’s National Security Council, said Thursday that this news was important because “it underlines Israel’s commitment to withdraw from Lebanon.”

“Israel has said it has no aspirations to remain in Lebanon,” said Haass, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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