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News Analysis: Israel, Palestinians Resume Talks in Advance of U.S. Peace Initiative

The United States is finally lumbering into action in a bid to restart the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — and not a moment too soon.

Signals of an imminent burst of activity began emanating from Washington late last week just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confronted a potential crisis prompted by plans to build new Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem.

Some observers see the Clinton Administration’s apparent decision to invest – – and risk — political prestige in a new bout of regional peace diplomacy as connected to the intensified danger of conflagration in the region posed by the dispute surrounding Ras al-Amud, the site of the proposed new Jewish neighborhood.

America’s effort, according to informed reports from Washington, will include a visit to the region by Special Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross — perhaps as early as next week.

But, unlike his trips in recent months, Ross will come this time with a detailed American proposal designed to jump-start the stalled negotiations.

And he will want clear-cut answers from Israel and the Palestinian Authority in response to the initiative.

The American proposals are said to include:

a suspension of new construction by Israel in disputed areas.

This includes both Har Homa, the suburb in southeastern Jerusalem where earth- moving work began in March, triggering the suspension of talks, and at Ras al- Amud, where the Miami-based philanthropist Dr. Irving Moskowitz has obtained permission from the Jerusalem Planning Commission to build residential homes on land he owns.

closer security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, intended to head off terrorist actions and to ensure that the Palestinian security services are fully committed to the peace process.

In what observers see as a gesture by the two parties toward the evolving American diplomatic initiative, Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Sha’ath announced Monday that two joint committees would resume discussions on issues related to the 1995 Interim Agreement – – establishing a safe passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the opening of a seaport in Gaza.

A committee dealing with the opening of a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip has already resumed negotiations in recent weeks.

Their meeting was a follow-up to Levy’s discussions last week with Sha’ath and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Levy briefed Jordanian leaders Tuesday in Amman on the latest moves to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

Israeli spokesmen hailed the resumption of committee discussions as a breakthrough, while Palestinian officials attempted to downplay it.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: These discussions are not at the core of the conflict, and do not of themselves represent a resolution of the months- long crisis.

But the decision by the two sides to relaunch these talks signifies their growing awareness that the Americans are planning to exert pressure on both of them to resume the “hard core” negotiations — on the further redeployments of Israeli troops from rural West Bank areas, on security, and, as Netanyahu has repeatedly suggested, on getting down to the final-status talks, which will include determining the status of Jerusalem.

The Ras al-Amud project burst late last week over the Jerusalem political establishment with the suddenness of a bomb.

The planned neighborhood lies on almost four acres on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, facing Mount Scopus, which has the Hebrew University at its summit.

Unlike the Har Homa site, which is in a relatively uninhabited area, the latest project would be erected in a neighborhood with some 11,000 Palestinian residents.

On July 24, word spread that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert had endorsed the city planning commission’s decision to give Moskowitz the go-ahead to build 70 housing units.

Netanyahu, claiming that he had not known about the municipality’s action ahead of time, said that his government was firmly committed to building in Jerusalem, but that the Ras al-Amud project’s timing was inappropriate.

The premier pledged Sunday to block the project, and quickly conveyed via an aide to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat that he did not intend to move ahead with construction.

On Monday, an Interior Ministry committee suspended the permits granted to Moskowitz, and a Jerusalem district court is expected to rule on the legality of the permits in about two weeks.

But the question of what precisely Netanyahu knew and when he knew it has become a focus of debate between coalition and opposition parties, and within the coalition as well.

Netanyahu’s critics, on both sides of the political divide, see the Ras al-Amud episode as yet another example of the prime minister’s duplicity — the insistent claims that he did know in advance — or of the chronic faults in his government’s decision-making processes — his insistence that he did not know – – which they say is almost as bad.

As always, the premier finds himself under pressure from the hard-line right in his coalition to go ahead with the construction at Ras al-Amud.

Some of these Knesset members toured the site Monday and issued ringing declarations that Jews would be living there shortly.

But the prime minister’s two senior ministers, Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, made it clear that they strongly oppose the project.

Both ministers have become increasingly restless over the deteriorating situation in the peace process and the growing sense permeating the country that war is no longer a remote and unlikely scenario.

Even if the premier decides to take the advice of the intelligence community, and of his two top ministers, to prevent construction, Netanyahu will have to contend with Olmert, who has placed himself firmly on the side of the hard- liners.

Political pundits detect strong political and personal emotions beneath the surface of this ostensibly ideological confrontation.

They say that Olmert, no less than other key figures in the Likud, has come to believe that Netanyahu is vulnerable and that, on the strength of his performance to date, he will not be the party’s candidate for prime minister in the country’s next elections, slated for the year 2000.

The Jerusalem mayor, a longtime Knesset member and former minister, aspires for the leadership.

If he emerges relatively unscathed from his current trial in connection with alleged improprieties relating to Likud campaign finances in the 1988 elections, as is likely, Olmert may feel the moment is ripe to declare his candidacy.

What better issue, for the nationalist constituency, than that of Jerusalem?

As is so often the case in Israeli decision-making, domestic political and personal considerations are being fused into policy issues, creating the potential for further drama and discord as the expected U.S. diplomatic initiative unfolds.

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