ANALYSIS: FEAR OF `GAZA-JERICHO ONLY’ UNDERLIES SLOW PACE OF ISRAELI-PLO. NEGOTIATIONS
The eight-hour meeting between Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres late Saturday night at the Swiss resort of Davos brought glowing reports of progress in the talks between the two sides.
But the continuing routine of setbacks, progress and then again more setbacks in hammering out the details of the Israeli-PLO accord has obscured a broader question:
Why are both sides, but particularly the Palestinians, allowing the original target date of Dec. 13 for Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to slip further and further into the past?
And why has so much of the debate revolved around questions that are largely symbolic, like the exact size of the area around Jericho from which Israeli troops will withdraw?
After all, Israel is scheduled to begin withdrawing its troops from much of the remainder of the West Bank in July, only three months after any initial changes are supposed to take place in and around Jericho.
The fixation on the current round of negotiations seems to reinforce the thinking current in political circles here that the Gaza-Jericho agreement, originally intended as merely the first stage of the interim autonomy plan, may prove to be the only stage.
This would explain the doggedness with which both Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating.
And it would explain why the PLO is so determined to obtain as large an area as possible for its Jericho enclave, despite the promise in the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles that the status of Jericho would be no different from that of Hebron and Nablus in only a matter of months.
Indeed, among the items apparently agreed to in Davos were an undertaking for joint Israeli-Palestinian tourism projects at the Dead Sea, south of Jericho, and Palestinian access to holy sites beyond the Jericho enclave.
Reports reaching Jerusalem from Cairo this week further corroborated the assessment that full autonomy has dropped off the diplomatic agenda.
According to top Egyptian sources, Arafat is less than committed to hold territories-wide elections for an autonomous governing council, as provided for in the Declaration of Principles.
In conversations with Egyptians, he reportedly replied vaguely when questioned on this point. Asked, for instance, who might run against him in such elections, he pointed, apparently in jest, to his longtime colleague Yasser Abed Rabbo.
In direct contacts with the Israelis, the idea has recently resurfaced of holding, at least as a first step, local or municipal elections rather than the national campaign envisaged in the Declarations of Principles.
At any rate, with all attention focussed on the last, nerve-wracking stages of the Gaza-Jericho accord, the prospects for an overall autonomy agreement seem a good deal less promising than they did when the Declaration of Principles itself was signed last September.
Just how close Israel and the PLO are to a signed Gaza-Jericho accord remains an open question, with diplomatic optimism ranging on a not unfamiliar sliding scale from Arafat to Rabin.
The PLO chairman radiated confidence following his weekend meetings with Peres, telling the world that he expected the agreement to be signed within two weeks.
Peres was slightly more cautious.
Other Israeli officials stressed that while understandings had been reached between Peres and Arafat on major security issues which had been holding up progress, much detailed negotiating still remained on other aspects of the Gaza-Jericho accord.
Rabin himself, after studying the documents emerging from the Davos round, confirmed that progress had certainly been made there. But there was still a long way to go, he stressed, intimating pointedly that the Peres-inspired upbeat reports from Davos had been exaggerated.
Unnamed “defense circles” in Tel Aviv went further, telling reporters that Israeli concessions at Davos, especially in connection with the crossing-points between Jericho and Jordan and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, could endanger important security interests.
These warnings were quickly denied by Rabin’s office. But they, too, added to the confused and fragmented picture.
They added, moreover, to the rumors that Rabin and Peres were at odds over the negotiations. Peres himself told reporters this week that he wanted to consult with Rabin face-to-face before meeting with Arafat again, possibly in Cairo on Sunday.