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NEWS ANALYSIS Israel, Palestinians prepare for post-Hebron negotiations

JERUSALEM, Dec. 30 (JTA) — Like stock market pundits speculating on what will happen after an anticipated development, Mideast analysts this week were trying to look beyond the still-unsigned Hebron accord. Expectations that the deal on redeploying Israeli forces from most of Hebron would be initialed this week rose after last week’s summit between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. As U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross returned to the region Monday to help the two sides conclude an agreement, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were holding marathon sessions to bridge their differences. A top issue precluding a deal concerned security at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy site for both Jews and Muslims. Arafat has insisted on joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols at the tomb. But Netanyahu declared Sunday that the Jewish state alone would continue to maintain security at the site. An agreement on Hebron nevertheless seemed within reach — barring a horrific act of terrorism. Significantly, much of the last-minute wrangling was focused on the next stages of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians were seeking firm, written assurances from the Netanyahu government that it would implement subsequent phases prescribed in the existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The United States, it is understood, was preparing side letters reiterating Israeli and Palestinian commitment to the remaining steps of the peace process. Israel has promised to implement the next stage of that process six weeks after the Hebron redeployment. At that time, the Israel Defense Force will carry out the first of three “further redeployments” in the West Bank. The other two are slated to take place within one year. In the first of these redeployments, troops will pull back from certain areas now incorporated in “Area C,” the largely rural areas of the West Bank still are under Israeli military and civilian control. Possibly, too, some areas now designated “Area B” that are under a mix of Palestinian civilian control and Israeli security control may become part of “Area A,” which is wholly controlled by the Palestinian Authority. But the extent of the three further redeployments is not spelled out in the 1995 Interim Agreement, and Netanyahu clearly intends to keep it modest. Moreover, the Israeli premier is reportedly contemplating not making any further withdrawals beyond the first further redeployment until Israel and the Palestinians conclude a final-status agreement. Many observers see this as the seed of future strife. Netanyahu has been urging that the two sides embark on intensive permanent-status negotiations immediately after Hebron. He believes that carrying out all three further redeployments would weaken Israel’s position in the final-status talks because the great bulk of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will already have been ceded to the Palestinian Authority. The final-status talks will deal with several of the most contentious issues, including Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlements and Jerusalem. Notwithstanding the increasing focus on what will happen in the next phases of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, some observers predict that American peacemaking efforts will now shift toward the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian track. The temperature of the rhetoric between Israel and Syria rose again recently, after efforts in recent weeks to cool it, when the IDF deputy chief of staff told reporters that the army now viewed as more likely the chances of war with Syria in the coming year. Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai said the army had channeled funds and personnel to enhancing its war preparedness and was now in a much better position than a few months ago. Damascus hit back with accusations that Israel was not really interested in peace at all. During the weekend, the Syrians reiterated their assertions that both former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had pledged full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and that the current government was reneging. The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, stepping in before tension escalated on the ground, said Vilnai had not been predicting war or even warning that it was probable. Rather, he was doing what generals are supposed to do: preparing for worst-case scenarios. Meanwhile, Peres welcomed Netanyahu’s statement that he would bring peace with Syria during his term in office. But Peres added that it should be clear to the prime minister that the terms for such peace would not be different from that concluded between Israel and Egypt: full withdrawal for full peace. Given the extreme difficulty the United States has experienced in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach agreement on Hebron, and the volatility of the situation between Syria and Israel, there has been speculation both in the region and in Washington that the Clinton administration may appoint Richard Holbrooke as the president’s personal envoy to the Mideast. The appointment of Holbrooke, who brokered peace in Bosnia, would be seen in the region as raising the level of American diplomatic investment in the peace process on an ongoing basis. Currently, U.S. efforts are headed by Ross, the State Department’s top Mideast expert, with periodic interventions by the outgoing secretary of state, Warren Christopher. Compounding the complexity of the post-Hebron picture is the confused state of Israel’s domestic politics. To the chagrin of many in his own Labor Party, Peres still says a government of national unity is “weeks” away. Peres continues to meet frequently on this issue with Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon, now minister of national infrastructure.
At the same time, 10 Knesset members from the two major parties, led by Labor’s Yossi Beilin and Likud’s Michael Eitan, have held a series of discreet meetings and are said to have found surprisingly varied areas of consensus. These consultations, however, are paradoxical. While Peres and Labor have welcomed the impending Hebron deal and pledged their support for it in the Knesset, Sharon is conducting a high-profile political effort to drum up opposition to the deal from within the Cabinet. While the National Religious Party is the coalition partner most implacably opposed to the Hebron deal, it has asked to be included in the Likud-Labor talks led by Beilin and Eitan that are seeking to reach common ground on the final-status talks. Lastly, two senior Cabinet pragmatists, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Foreign Minister David Levy, are staunchly opposed to a unity government. Commentators presume that they would likely lose their jobs to Labor representatives if a unity government were formed.