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NEWS ANALYSIS What’s behind Israel’s proposal to accelerate final-status talks?

JERUSALEM, April 7 (JTA) — How serious is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about accelerating peace negotiations with the Palestinians? This was the question on President Clinton’s mind when he met with Netanyahu this week in Washington and discussed the Israeli premier’s proposal to move straight into the permanent-status negotiations as a means to breathe new life into the peace process. If Netanyahu intends to expedite final-status talks with his government coalition intact, then the whole exercise may be nothing more than a public relations stunt. In his Cabinet are some of the harshest critics of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If, on the other hand, Netanyahu’s proposal is part of a strategy to advance the peace process by setting up a national unity government with the Labor Party, then it may herald a breakthrough out of the current crisis. Under the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, known as the Oslo accords, the final-status talks were slated to begin in earnest last month and be concluded by 1999. In the meantime, Israel was to carry out three redeployments from West Bank rural areas. But the process hit a logjam after Israel began building a Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem and decided on a first redeployment that the Palestinians charged was paltry. The Palestinians maintain that they will not return to the talks until Israel stops construction of Har Homa and freezes all settlement activity. Israel is demanding, in the wake of last month’s suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe, a clear commitment by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to end terror. The Clinton administration has voiced interest in Netanyahu’s proposal to complete the permanent-status talks in six months as part of a package being developed to revive the dialogue. But speculation is rife about Netanyahu’s intentions, and the Palestinians themselves are wary of deviating from the step-by-step Oslo process. Those who view the proposal as a publicity stunt point out that all the hard-liners in Netanyahu’s coalition have enthusiastically endorsed it. Ministers and Knesset members from the Likud and the National Religious Party as well as other coalition partners who have been among the most outspoken opponents of the Oslo process now welcome the premier’s idea of launching into permanent-status negotiations. One explanation for this enthusiasm is that these hard-liners presume that no compromise is possible on the permanent-status issues — Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees’ rights. They therefore believe that such talks will produce permanent deadlock and bring to an end the process they so vehemently oppose. However, if Netanyahu believes that his proposal will advance the peace process, his ability to form a unity government to implement it may be hindered by rivalries within the Labor Party. While Shimon Peres, Labor’s leader, is the most energetic campaigner in favor of the unity option, his likely successor as party leader — former Foreign Minister Ehud Barak — is opposed to it. So is the candidate now in second place for the leadership position, Yossi Beilin, who was long Peres’ political acolyte. Of the four contenders for the party leadership, only former Health Minister Ephraim Sneh supports Peres’ unity efforts. The Labor leadership election, scheduled for June 3, looms as a deadline for Netanyahu. He must decide before then whether to make Labor an offer, because afterward, the proposition may well be refused. On the other hand, say seasoned observers here, if Barak wins the leadership position, he may prove more agreeable than he appears now to Netanyahu’s overtures. To Barak, Peres’ eagerness to lead Labor into a unity government looks like the former premier’s way of hanging onto the party leadership. Netanyahu said last week that he intends to move fast on the unity option — if he decides to go for it. But he has not yet decided to do so. And even Peres, for all his enthusiasm, has said he will not be part of a unity government until the conclusion of an ongoing police investigation into alleged improprieties surrounding the abortive appointment in January of a new attorney general. In terms of substantive policy considerations, neither Barak nor Beilin is opposed in principle to moving directly into permanent-status talks. Beilin, even though he was the principal Israeli negotiator of the Oslo accords, was never personally or ideologically committed to their phased approach. Instead, as he has explained privately, he embraced the idea of a five- year interim period as a tactical means for getting the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to approve the Oslo process. Barak, too, has indicated support for advancing the timetable for the permanent-status talks. He harbored serious reservations about the original time frame because it provided for three major Israeli redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank before the permanent-status negotiations were to reach their critical phase. In Barak’s view — a view that was shared by Netanyahu and other Likud officials, who were then in the opposition — this meant that Israel would relinquish the bulk of its territorial assets in advance of the toughest phase of final-status negotiations. It would conduct those crucial negotiations, therefore, from a position of weakness. As premier, Netanyahu’s strategy was to call for a first redeployment that was far less extensive than the Palestinians had been led to expect in earlier negotiations with the previous Labor-led government. But that decision, which has yet to be implemented, played a vital role in triggering the current crisis in the peace process. The Palestinians felt betrayed when they understood that a mere 2 percent of West Bank land now under Israeli control would be turned over to them in the first redeployment. Another 7 percent now under joint control also was to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. For the Palestinians, as much as they mistrust Netanyahu, the prospect of an expedited permanent-status settlement led by a Likud prime minister and backed by the broad consensus of a unity government must be appealing. They know enough about domestic Israeli politics to understand that an agreement achieved on this basis would have the credibility and strength necessary to assure its longevity. But neither they nor the Labor Party leaders know whether this is what Netanyahu intends. Perhaps, after Monday’s conversation in the White House, the only person who does know what is on the Israeli premier’s mind is Clinton.

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