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News Analysis: Israeli Position Not So Inflexible As Israel and PLO Inch Back to Table

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are inching back to the negotiating table.

Outwardly, nearly two weeks after a Jewish terrorist murdered at least 29 Arabs in Hebron, there are few signs of renewed rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians.

The territories remain under curfew, and tensions continue.

The PLO has loudly set new conditions for resuming the negotiations on implementing an Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip, which had been nearing completion before being broken off in the wake of the Hebron murders.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been equally loud in refusing to accede to those conditions, which include disarming settlers, dismantling settlements and bringing international forces into the territories to protect the Palestinians.

But despite this apparent loggerhead, it seems that both sides are preparing to make compromises that could bring about some tangible sign of Israeli withdrawal by April 13.

Israel may well promise the PLO that it will dismantle some settlements, and allow some kind of international presence into the territories — even while loudly denying that it is giving into any PLO demands.

And the PLO is already retreating from its demand that the settlers be disarmed.

At midweek, behind-the-scenes diplomacy proceeded without let-up, with the aim of arranging a high-level meeting between the two sides in Cairo early next week.

The meeting would be designed to pave the way to a formal resumption of the suspended bilateral peace talks in Washington soon after.

Both the United States and Egypt have been actively mediating between Israel and the PLO.

As the sides haggle over terms for the resumption, Israel sought to make its basic position clear — both to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who received a personal emissary from Rabin in Cairo on Monday night, and to the public at home and abroad.

THE BEST WAY TO EASE TENSIONS

That position maintains that a speedy resumption, and above all a speedy conclusion and implementation of the Gaza-Jericho accord, would be the best possible way of easing the acute tensions and sporadic violence that have gripped the administered territories.

Rabin’s top political aide, Jacques Neriah, met with the PLO chairman for what Rabin described Tuesday as “talks about the talks.” They are understood to have discussed the PLO’s demands for Israeli actions and concessions that can — in Arafat’s view — enable a resumption.

Neriah is understood to have delivered a firm message to the effect that the agreements reached in Oslo last fall and in Cairo last month cannot now be reopened.

Israel, he told the PLO, did not demand that the agreements be reopened after terror attacks took a heavy toll of Jewish lives in the months since the Declaration of Principles was signed last September.

On the face of it, these messages would seem to reflect an inflexible position on the part of the Israelis.

Analyzed more closely, however, the Israeli position is less categorical. It offers fairly wide latitude and promises future flexibility:

The small settlement of Netzarim, isolated in the heart of the Gaza Strip, may well fold despite Rabin’s principled position against removing any settlements at this early stage of the peace process.

The religious Kibbutz Hadati movement, to which Netzarim belongs, informed the government Tuesday that it is prepared to consider dismantling Netzarim, which has not been a successful venture economically or socially.

Rabin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the question of cash compensation from the government for settlers wishing to quit Kiryat Arba “will be examined” on an individual basis.

According to two Labor Knesset members and various media reports, a not insignificant number of settlers from Kiryat Arba and from other West Bank settlements have made such applications in the past weeks.

The Cabinet is still undecided over proposals to dismantle the small islands of Jewish settlement in the city of Hebron. Observers say that despite a ministerial majority favoring dismantlement, Rabin is unlikely to order it at this time.

Nevertheless, the very fact that dismantlement has become the focal issue of public debate in Israel, with ministers openly supporting it, can give the Palestinians cause for some expectation that Rabin seriously intends to crack down on extremist settlers. Rabin himself referred to the Hebron pockets Tuesday as “time bombs.”

This expectation has been reinforced during the week by the crackdown on the followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

KAHANIST LEADERS ARRESTED

The police arrested four out of the five Kahanist leaders targeted with administrative detention orders. Dozens of other Kahane followers, the army announced, will no longer be drafted into reserve army service and will have their weapons confiscated.

Regarding an international presence in the territories, Rabin has reaffirmed the commitment to permit some such presence in Gaza and Jericho, as promised in the Declaration of Principles.

His current definition of that presence — unarmed observers — is different than Arafat’s, which would include an armed force. But here, too, the Israeli position may prove flexible, with Israel possibly agreeing to the presence of international observers who are lightly armed.

If the talks do resume soon, it will be too late for Israel to meet the original April 13 deadline for withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, as promised in the Declaration of Principles.

But Israeli officials say they still hope to mark that date with some high-profile and meaningful step on the ground signifying that, despite the difficult path taken by the peace process, implementation of the Israel-PLO accord is underway at last.

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