While Israel and Palestinian negotiators have launched intensive negotiations in an effort to conclude their second-phase agreement on Palestinian autonomy, the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track appears to have all but ground to a standstill.
Last week’s optimism on the Syrian front dissolved as the Syrians refused to resume security talks in Washington between senior military officers of the two countries.
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who spent last week shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus, flew home last Friday, unable to set a date for the resumption of military talks.
The talks were intended to be a follow-up to last month’s meetings between Israel and Syria’s chiefs of staff.
In contrast, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have launched round-the-clock negotiations in an intense effort to reach their July 25 target date for a new agreement that would extend self-rule in the West Bank.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Saturday night that “60 percent of the paperwork was already done.”
He added that the two sides would “more or less” be able to meet the signing deadline, which officials hope will be capped with a White House ceremony in Washington.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat are apparently set to sign the agreement in Washington if the agreement is concluded on time.
The latest round of talks began last Friday, broke for Shabbat and resumed Sunday at a resort hotel in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Ya’acov. More than 70 Israeli and 60 Palestinian negotiators are meeting in subcommittees to hammer out various aspects of the agreement.
The Israeli-Palestinian talks were initially to have been held at a military base near Florence.
And advance party of Israelis was in Italy last week to make preparations for the talks, but at the last minute Palestinian officials balked at the choice of the site. Arafat reportedly decided that the talks should proceed closer to home to enable him to monitor the negotiations closely and to intervene if necessary.
Negotiators will reportedly remain at the Zichron Ya’acov hotel, located on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, until an agreement is reached.
According to hotel officials, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has rented the entire hotel complex for 10 days.
The hotel, which was closed to journalists, was under heavy security.
Police reinforcements brought in to guard the site of the talks soon had their hands full when a group of settlers opposed to handing over any of the West Bank to the Palestinians held a demonstration outside the hotel Sunday afternoon.
The two sides are hoping that the seclusion and intensity of the talks will create a Camp David-like atmosphere that will prove conducive to reaching an agreement.
Leading the Israeli team are the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, and the director-general of the Finance Ministry, David Brodet.
The Palestinians are led by Ahmed Karia, who is also known as Abu Alaa; Jamil Tarifi; and Nabil Sha’ath.
In contrast to Peres’ optimistic assessment, some Israeli sources said much work on drafting an agreement — as well as some major decisionmaking – - remains to be done.
The sources said that even though the two sides have reached an agreement in principle that the Israel Defense Force will redeploy from four Palestinian cities in the West Bank — Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm and Kalkilya — the question of responsibility for the surrounding rural areas, including police activities and joint patrols, has still not been worked out.
The two sides also reportedly disagree about the scope and timing of an Israeli pullback from Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Israeli officials have said there will be no army redeployment from Ramallah and Bethlehem until bypass roads are built for Israeli settlers living in the area — a move they said would not take place until the end of the year.
An agreement on issues surrounding Palestinian elections is said to be close to conclusion. The elections are currently being touted for November.
Two issues involved in the elections — the size of the Palestinian Council that will be elected and whether Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem will be eligible to run for office and vote in the elections — will apparently be left to Rabin and Arafat to hammer out a compromise.
Another area of contention for the negotiators is the West Bank town of Hebron, where special security arrangements will have to be hammered out to prevent clashes between the approximately 415 Jewish settlers living there among 100,000 Palestinians.
Hebron was the site of confrontations between Israeli settlers and police over the weekend.
On Saturday, police arrested 25 Israelis — 19 of them reportedly younger than 18 years old — after about 40 settlers protested the arrests earlier that day of five Israeli youths.
According to police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen, the youths had been arrested for allegedly firing slingshots at Palestinian passers-by.
After the arrests, settlers reportedly attacked houses and cars belonging to Palestinians.
Meanwhile, on the Israeli-Syrian front, Syrian officials are saying that they are ready to resume ambassador-level talks in Washington, but not the high- level military discussions.
The military talks are considered critical because they are focusing on the nature of security arrangements on the Golan Heights in the event of an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace with Syria.
Israeli sources said the Syrians’ about face, after reports of progress in earlier talks, may be a result of Syrian angling for an Israeli concession.
They pointed to Damascus’ reversal on the issue of ground-based early-warning stations, provided they were staffed by non-Israeli personnel.
But over the weekend, Syria toughened its line again, insisting there could be no such installations because they were an infringement of Syrian sovereignty.
For Israel, ground installations are seen as an important element in early warning and deterrence. Israel has not given up its demand to operate its own early-warning facility on Mt. Hermon on the Golan even after a pullback.
Israeli officials said Sunday that Israel would not back down on this issue as a way of wooing the Syrians back to the military talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a television interview Sunday, called the problem of restarting the military talks “technical,” leaving it uncertain whether he would visit the Middle East as originally planned in the near future.
Christopher added that talks between the two sides’ ambassadors to Washington would resume within two weeks.