News Analysis: Israeli-palestinian Relations Await Results of Hebron Talks

For those reading the tea leaves, predicting the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the Israeli redeployment in Hebron has become a hazardous affair.

In one camp are the optimists, who say an agreement will be reached within a matter of days.

To this the pessimists counter: We’ve heard that one several times before.

A resolution of the contentious issues surrounding Hebron has become a litmus test in Israeli-Palestinian relations and, for the moment, the essential stepping stone to advancing the peace process.

The optimists cite the abrupt reverse course charted by U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, who announced Monday night that he was returning to Washington, but then suddenly delayed his departure to continue mediating the talks.

Ross was headed for Ben-Gurion Airport when he was called and asked to stay on because of the progress in talks on civil issues involved in the Hebron redeployment.

Ross made the abrupt turnaround after speaking by telephone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to some reports.

Explaining his actions, Ross issued a statement Tuesday, saying that the two sides “were in the midst of the most promising discussions to date on the issue of civil affairs.”

The pessimists, however, point to the separate talks on security matters in Hebron, focusing on how Palestinian negotiators walked out of the talks Monday night, charging that the attitude of the Israeli negotiators was akin to “occupiers toward the occupied.”

Netanyahu appeared to belong to the cup-is-half-full camp.

“The negotiations are very close to reaching a conclusion,” he told reporters Tuesday, but then added, “though they are not completed just yet.”

Netanyahu, who held consultations with the Israeli negotiating team prior to its return to the talks Tuesday, said he would be willing to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat if it was deemed necessary.

“A meeting with Arafat is possible, and desired, when we reach the final phase of the negotiations,” he said.

Adding more ammunition to those in the optimists’ camp was U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, who said he was more hopeful than before that the sides could make headway.

“I think we saw some significant progress last night and early this morning,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I am more hopeful today than yesterday that we will see an agreement signed.”

But — in a remark quickly picked up by the pessimists — Indyk added that he could not say how long Ross could be expected to remain in the region.

The pessimists also cited comments Arafat made Tuesday to a group of visiting Israeli parliamentarians.

Arafat told them that he was not overly optimistic about the progress of the talks — then hastened to add that he was not “desperate, either,” said Saleh Tareef, chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, whose members met in Bethlehem with Arafat.

The meeting got off to a rocky start when three right-wing members of the committee — Ze’ev Boim of Likud, Avraham Stern of the National Religious Party and Binyamin Alon of Moledet — refused to shake Arafat’s hand and were asked to leave.

Tareef, Labor Party Knesset member, said he did not understand why the three had agreed to come to the meeting in the first place if they had intended to act in that manner.

Critics of the Hebron talks were meanwhile wondering why the Palestinians were coming to the negotiating table if they were not planning to negotiate in good faith.

Israeli officials said they hoped an agreement could be reached by the end of this week.

But they expressed concern that the Palestinians would try to stretch out the talks until after the U.S. presidential elections, when they could hope for less ambiguous American support.

For the past week, Israeli officials, with their repeated comments of an imminent breakthrough in the talks, have placed themselves squarely among the optimists.

In stark contrast stand the Palestinians, who have repeatedly been outright pessimistic in their assessments of the negotiations.

Despite these outward differences, which are perhaps mere shadow shows aimed at scoring international support for their positions — the two sides agreed Tuesday to continue their discussions in and around Jerusalem, rather go to Eilat as originally planned, in order to remain closer to the chief policy- makers.

In at least one sign of progress, copies of a draft agreement on civil issues were presented to Netanyahu and Arafat.

The draft contains more than 20 clauses, which address, among other things, building rights in the Arab and Jewish parts of the often volatile town.

Nonetheless, differences remained about security arrangements for the 450 Jewish residents of Hebron, which has a Palestinian population of 100,000.

Among the key sticking points: Israel’s demand to be able to launch a “hot pursuit” of Palestinian terrorists who attempt to slip into the self-rule portions of Hebron.

The latest developments came after more than two weeks of negotiations to implement the redeployment in Hebron, initially scheduled to take place in March.

The redeployment is being widely seen as a test of Netanyahu’s willingness to implement agreements reached with the Palestinians by the previous Labor government.

But as with any negotiations, the willingness of the other party to reach an agreement may also be questioned, particularly if the Palestinians feel that they will score more points in the international arena by delaying a handshake.

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