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NEWS ANALYSIS Labor, Likud gaps narrow on talks with Palestinians

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JERUSALEM, Dec. 9 (JTA) — Six months after a bitter election contest, the Labor and Likud parties may not be all that far apart on how to approach the final-status talks with the Palestinians. The talks, slated to be completed by May 1999, will address the thorniest issues confronting the two sides, including the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian statehood and Palestinian refugees. Resumption of the final-status talks, which opened ceremonially several weeks before Israel”s May elections, is expected after an agreement is reached on the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron. Anticipating that a Hebron agreement is near, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet last Friday that they would soon begin discussing Israel”s positions in the final-status negotiations. When that time comes, the Cabinet may well be discussing a series of proposals worked out jointly by representatives of the governing Likud and opposition Labor. Knesset member Yossi Beilin, who recently announced his own candidacy for the Labor leadership, and Likud Knesset faction Chairman Michael Eitan have been heading up talks with a view to mapping out areas of agreement between the two parties. Beilin said during a visit to Washington last week that he expected an agreement to be finalized in the next four to six weeks. Political observers in Israel who believe that there is the possibility of forging common ground between the two major parties cite the imminent redeployment from most of Hebron as a watershed. Once that goes through, they say, Likud will have irretrievably compromised its key doctrine of a “Greater Israel.”” Beyond Hebron, they continue, the question then becomes one of how much West Bank land Israel should keep. This is the very same question that Labor itself has been grappling with ever since the 1967 Six-Day War. Therefore, according to this viewpoint, there has been a dramatic narrowing of the gap between the two parties on the core issue. This perspective was recently given public support by Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, who declared that the two parties could reach agreement over the West Bank with relative ease. On the issue of settlements, for example, there possibly could be room for accord between Israel”s two main parties — given the Likud”s new readiness to give up parts of the West Bank. Beilin, aided by the team that secretly negotiated the original Israeli- Palestinian accords in Oslo, reached in 1995 an informal but detailed accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization”s No. 2 man, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, on a permanent-status agreement. Israel was to withdraw from most of the West Bank, but annex areas close to the pre-1967 border that contain many of the settlements and most of the settlers. Settlements in more outlying areas would either be dismantled, relocated into the retained settlement blocs close to the border or remain under Palestinian rule. This informal agreement was concluded just days before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated last November, after which the plan was effectively shelved. It remains, however, the only agreed basis for a permanent settlement. It is predicated, however, on two conditions that would presumably be difficult for many in the Likud to swallow: * It calls for full Palestinian statehood in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Likud is committed, at least for now, to oppose Palestinian statehood. Nevertheless, some observers point to Netanyahu”s recent comparisons of Andorra and Puerto Rico to the potential makeup of a future Palestinian entity. This, they say, proves that he is pragmatic enough to accept that the permanent-status talks must satisfy in some measure the Palestinians” demand for sovereignty while assuring Israel”s security. * The annexation of the settlement bloc was to be set off, in the Beilin-Abbas agreement, by Israel”s ceding some of its sovereign soil alongside the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. Here, too, some observers say that the Likud of today is much more pragmatic than in the past — and much more pragmatic than some of its current coalition partners. A land-for-land deal enabling Israel to hold onto the major settlements could yet find supporters among Netanyahu”s camp. If there is indeed ease in forging a consensus on talks with the Palestinians, what keeps Labor and Likud apart, according to Katsav, is the Golan Heights. Other politicians and political observers, however, maintain that there is much flexibility in Netanyahu”s ostensibly hard-line position on the Golan. They cite a recent flurry of diplomatic messages from Jerusalem to Damascus, all to the effect that the Netanyahu government is ready to resume the long-stalled talks with Syria — though not necessarily from the position at which the previous Labor government broke them off in March. Labor, according to the Syrians — and according to the Likud — was ready to trade all the Golan for a full peace with Damascus. The Likud is not ready to do so. But neither is it clinging to the “peace-for-peace”” position, opposing territorial compromise, originally put forward by the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir when the talks with Syria began in 1991.
In contrast to these essentially optimistic assessments, there are many political pundits here who dismiss such views as pie-in-the-sky. They maintain that Netanyahu”s call for resuming permanent-status negotiations immediately after a Hebron redeployment are intended only to avoid the further West Bank redeployments called for in the Interim Agreement. These observers maintain that Netanyahu believes he can effectively halt the peace process after the Hebron redeployment and let the Palestinian entity crystallize in its current condition: a series of autonomous municipal enclaves surrounded by Israeli troops. The Labor-Likud discussions on final-status talks come against a backdrop of ongoing speculation regarding the prospects of forming a national unity government. This speculation has been encouraged by key figures in both parties, though there are also vigorous opponents of the idea in both camps. Netanyahu”s own sentiments are unclear. Some observers see the Likud”s ongoing flirtation with Labor designed to soften any recalcitrance among hard-liners within the current governing coalition. The talks with Labor carry an implied threat to the hard-liners: If you do not shape up, we can dump you and make common cause with Labor leader Shimon Peres. The other reading is that Netanyahu wants to achieve maximum consensus among his partners as a way of strengthening his hand in subsequent talks with Labor. He would then retain the option of keeping some or all his partners in an expanded unity government. Peres, for his part, does not conceal his desire to join a unity government. He has officially announced that he will not run for re-election as Labor leader when the party holds leadership elections in June. But by unspoken agreement, Peres has until September to put together a unity government.

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