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News Analysis: Rabin-arafat Summit Paves Way for ‘moment of Truth’ in Relations

This week’s successful — and unusually warm — encounter between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat has paved the way for what could become the real moment of truth in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

After meeting for more than an hour Sunday at an Israeli army post near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the two leaders agreed to launch negotiations next week in Cairo for the next phase of their ongoing peace initiative: the timing of Palestinian elections and the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from the West Bank.

Some analysts in Israel — among them government officials — predict months of tough, perhaps fruitless negotiations. Israeli officials maintain they are in favor of the elections. The more difficult issue is the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank, which according to the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington last September, must be accomplished before the elections are held.

The problem of providing security for the approximately 100,000 Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank following an IDF redeployment is virtually unsolvable, according to many observers.

Because of the difficulties that lie ahead, some believe that Rabin is planning to sign a full peace treaty with Jordan, and make significant progress with Syria, before searching for an accommodation with the PLO.

ISRAEL, JORDAN DRAFTING PEACE ACCORD

Indeed, according to Israeli media reports, Israeli and Jordanian negotiators have already begun drafting a peace accord. The two sides have reportedly been making significant progress in their talks on border issues and water rights since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein signed a non-belligerency pact in July.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan are scheduled to meet with President Clinton in Washington on Monday, in a meeting analysts have suggested could hasten the completion of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

According to this theory of Jordan and Syria first, Israel, when it decides to refocus its full attention on the Palestinians, will be in a stronger position to address some of the thornier issues.

At the same time, Arafat may be in a weaker position and, consequently, will be more amenable to Israeli pressure.

In effect, the PLO leader could be forced to accept an interim autonomy agreement — and perhaps a permanent-status agreement as well — that leaves the Jewish settlements, or most of them, in place and under continued Israeli sovereignty and protection.

With the notoriously secretive Rabin playing his cards even closer to his vest than usual, no one can say authoritatively whether this indeed is his long-term strategy.

But whatever Rabin’s ideal preferences, some differences — even discord — among top Israeli leaders have become evident as Jerusalem prepares for its next phase of negotiations with the Palestinians.

The more hard-line approach, focusing on the settlers and their security, is demanding that there be no significant redeployment by the IDF unless and until an adequate alternative security system can be put in place.

Few in Jerusalem believe adequate security can be provided by a “strong Palestinian police force,” as envisioned in the Declaration of Principles.

Given the Palestinian police’s spotty security record in Gaza and Jericho since autonomy went into effect in May, there is widespread skepticism that the Palestinians would be able to monitor security on all major road arteries throughout the West Bank.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal disclosed midweek that he has proposed to Rabin that Israeli police and border police be deployed at strategic locations in the West Bank even after IDF forces are withdrawn.

But such a proposal is not likely to sit well with the Palestinians.

A more flexible school, represented by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, is proposing a piecemeal approach to redeployment. According to this proposal, the IDF would withdraw from towns such as Nablus and Ramallah, where Jewish traffic is minimal and could be channeled through one main highway.

IDF withdrawal from Hebron, on the other hand, is seen as potentially disastrous, given the small Jewish settlement within the city as well as the often explosive center of Kiryat Arba on Hebron’s outskirts.

According to this approach, the Palestinian Authority would continue to extend its power incrementally throughout the West Bank. The “early empowerment” agreement signed in August, under which Israel transferred authority over civilian areas such as education to the Palestinians, marked one such step in the incremental approach.

MOMENTUM MUST BE MAINTAINED

This school of thought also proposes that if no agreement on elections is reached for all of Gaza and the West Bank, then Palestinian elections could be held incrementally, beginning in individual areas or towns where the IDF redeployment has been satisfactorily completed.

Above all, in this view, the momentum of the Israel-Palestinian track must be maintained.

For the Palestinians, the elections — which Arafat aides confidently expect will be won by Arafat and his mainstream Al Fatah movement — are a vital stage toward domestic and international legitimacy, and also to independence.

Arafat, in remarks to reporters Sunday, continued to voice confidence that the elections could be held by Nov. 1. But hardly anyone, on either side, seems to believe that date is realistic.

Arafat and Rabin agreed to meet again in a month. By then, their negotiators will doubtless be in the thick of the issues and doubtless at loggerheads as well.

If, despite the problems up ahead, the atmosphere at the next summit meeting is as cordial as it was Sunday, that in itself will be a major success for the Israel-Palestinian track.

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