Israelis Returning to the Peace Talks with Hope of Achieving Breakthrough

Israeli negotiators are returning to the Middle East peace talks in Washington this week with a smaller delegation but bigger hopes of a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

The cutback, from 80 to 58 officials, apparently was ordered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for budgetary reasons.

The atmosphere of renewed hope surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was carefully nurtured by both American statements and relatively upbeat pronouncements from the two negotiating parties.

The most recent positive signal was a decidedly moderate interview given by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat to the highly respected Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

The PLO chief endorsed the increasingly talked-about “Gaza first” approach, but demanded that Palestinian control of a symbolic section of the West Bank be included with the problematic Gaza Strip.

It must not seem, Arafat explained in a four-hour conversation with two Ha’aretz reporters, that the Palestinians are prepared to abandon the West Bank in their eagerness to accept responsibility for Gaza.

The reporters met with the PLO chief at his Tunis headquarters last week on the same day as a group of journalists from American Jewish newspapers interviewed him.

Israel’s Rabin has also recently spoken favorably of “Gaza first,” defined in his case as implementing self-rule first in Gaza after the current stage of negotiations with the Palestinians on both Gaza and the West Bank are completed.

Other Israeli politicians support a “Gaza first” concept in which Israel would unilaterally implement Palestinian self-rule in Gaza or even pull out of the strip altogether.

There is media speculation here that failing a breakthrough on a joint “declaration of principles” between Israel and the Palestinians, the resumed talks may focus on an immediate transfer of specific areas of civilian authority to the Palestinians.

DEBATE OVER CONDITIONS IN TERRITORIES

Separate American consultations late last week with the Palestinians and Israelis each have apparently given little reason to believe that such a declaration will be achieved.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who attended meetings with American officials last week, said they had discussed the declaration, as well as “flaws in the negotiations.”

Faced with a deadlock over the declaration, Washington has proposed that the sides turn their attention to specific areas of administration, such as health, education and even police, that could be transferred to Palestinian control before a full agreement is reached on the autonomy.

According to news reports, Palestinians chosen by the PLO have been undergoing police training in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground continues to cause debate in Israel, as the 2 1/2 month closure of the territories poses problems for both the Israeli and Palestinian economy.

Hawks and doves — relative terms in Rabin’s center-left government — clashed at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting over the extent to which Israel is itself investing and encouraging foreign investments in the administered territories.

Labor Minister Ora Namir, a dove within her Labor Party, charged that not enough was being done to develop employment opportunities for Palestinians inside the territories.

Namir was backed up by Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc, who warned that some ministers might find it hard to remain in the government if the economic and social conditions in the territories continued to deteriorate as a result of the closure.

Finance Minister Avraham Shohat of Labor brushed aside Namir’s criticism as “ignorance” and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Orthodox Shas party upbraided Sarid for publicly criticizing the government in which he serves.

LITTLE CHANGE FROM DAMASCUS

The tart exchanges were plainly influenced by the imminent resumption of the negotiations in Washington.

Cabinet ministers are troubled by the government’s poor showing in opinion polls. On the one hand, the prime minister has failed so far to deliver on his main election promise — to reach agreement with the Palestinians on the interim autonomy arrangement outlined in the 1978 Camp David accords.

On the other hand, opponents of the government’s peace policy — both in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights — appear to be making inroads in the government’s public support.

On Sunday, Golan settlers and their supporters began another high-profile campaign with a sit-down demonstration in Jerusalem.

Regarding the Syrian front, meanwhile, the Americans have reportedly gleaned scant signs of new flexibility from Damascus during preparatory talks.

Cables reaching Jerusalem show that Damascus is still being ambiguous about defining what it means by peace and normalization with Israel.

Ha’aretz reported Sunday that Washington may decide on its own to submit to Israel and Syria a questionnaire designed to elicit greater clarity on what the sides mean by peace and withdrawal.

Indeed, Israeli observers say the extent and depth of American involvement will be the key factor determining whether substantial progress is achieved during this round.

The parties plainly want such progress.

The Palestinians and Arabs have notably not made their participation itself in the talks an issue, as they have done on many occasions in the past.

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