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News Analysis: As Politicians Debate Timetables, Palestinian Talks Remain. on Track

Is Israel’s peace train moving too fast?

Internal strife among the Palestinians, coupled with ongoing terrorist attacks, has some Israelis rethinking the pace – and price – of progress on the Palestinian peace track.

But even as the debate over the timetable for negotiations continued, the train kept steaming along this week, with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat meeting in Brussels to push for financial aid to the Palestinians and to discuss the next phase of Palestinian autonomy.

According to well-placed political insiders here, the second half of the current government’s term of office could turn a period of political retrenchment and diplomatic passivity rather than a time of further leaps forward in the peace process.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government, voted into power in June 1992, faces elections on or before November 1996. Recent opinion polls show a closing of the gap between the ruling Labor Party and the opposition Likud, and between their two respective leaders, Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The polls, which no doubt are giving the Rabin government pause, reflect growing dissatisfaction among Israelis on a number of issues – including the question of how best to do deal with the Palestinians.

Some Cabinet ministers are saying in private that the peace process might be put on hold for the immediate future. They say that the Palestine Liberation Organization should be confined to ruling the Gaza Strip and Jericho until it proves – mostly to the Israeli public – that it has the domestic strength to control its own territory and beat down the internal challenge posed by the fundamentalists.

Reflecting this unease, Labor Party Secretary-General Nissim Zvilli, himself a leading dove, admitted in an interview this week with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that his views must not prevail if the public mood is uncomfortable with the fast pace of the peace process.

“If we have been going too fast,” he said of the peace process, “we must now have the courage to say so publicly.”

Others within Labor, however, believe this is not a realistic political option, since Rabin and the party are too closely identified with the Israeli-PLO peace process to be able to distance themselves from it at this midterm stage.

As Tourism Minister Uzi Baram put it Monday: The government’s best hope of boosting its popularity ratings is to accelerate the peace process, not slow it down.

Baram called for immediate Palestinian elections, the next phase in the implementation of the self-rule accord. The accord also calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West bank prior to the elections – a move that could expose Israeli settlements there to increased dangers.

Given the high incidence of terror attacks against Israelis, the withdrawal looms as a major problem for Israeli leaders.

Some government leaders are saying privately that if redeployment requires the dismantling of isolated or awkwardly situated settlements in the West Bank, then so be it.

As the debate continues, no new policy approach has yet been determined.

In an effort to nail down an acceptable path, Rabin has scheduled a full-scale Cabinet debate on the peace policy for his coming Sunday.

And although there is no evidence that Rabin himself will initiate or acquiesce in the go-slow approach advocated by some in his party, his off-the-cuff reaction to Zvilli’s remarks this week illustrated his sensitivity to the current state of affairs.

Rabin told a party forum Monday that he would no “rush ahead” in the peace process. He added that the issues to be negotiated were “very complex.”

The complexity – and palpable dangers – of the situation were highlighted Sunday, when Hamas terrorists opened fire on a passing car on the Hebron-Beersheba highway, killing Rabbi Ami Olami, a 36-year-old settler and father of five.

Following that ambush, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, grimly warned at the weekly Cabinet meeting that fundamentalist terror would get “more sophisticated and more difficult to combat.”

Government ministers later criticized Barak for his dour prognosis, which was instantly leaked to the media. Their concern no doubt stemmed, at least in part, from their keen awareness of opinion polls showing a decline in public support for the government, for Labor, for Rabin and for the peace process – as well a marked rise in public concern over security.

As the political debate intensified, Peres and Arafat were meeting in Brussels this week, pressing European and other donor nations to make good on their promises of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The donor nations have pledged to deliver some $700 million during this year alone to the Palestinian. Only a fraction of that has been handed over so far, primarily because Arafat has repeatedly refused to establish a set of clear accounting procedures that will reflect how the aid is being spent.

President Clinton, meeting with Robin last week in Washington, said the United States supports the urgent transfer of $125 million to the Palestinians.

Peres and Arafat’s success in raising immediate funds could prove a significant factor in the stability of the Palestinian Authority – and in the Israeli government’s readiness to move ahead to the next phases of the peace process.

According to David Brodet, the director of budgets at the Israeli Finance Ministry who accompanied Peres to Brussels, the Palestinian Authority needs $20 million each month for operational expenses – apart from the much-needed economic development projects that are waiting on the drawing board for financing.

Without the cash for day-to-day activities, Brodet warned, the Palestinians face “total collapse.”

During their meeting in Brussels on Monday, Peres and Arafat also discussed further implementation of the Palestinian self-rule accord.

Though neither Peres nor Arafat would reveal details of the negotiations, Peres said that the two sides were negotiating seriously about the details of the Palestinian elections.

“Today we have agreed on an agenda,” Peres reportedly said. “We intend to negotiate with our Palestinian partners very seriously.”

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