News Analysis: Peace Progress Remains Elusive Despite Latest Diplomatic Deadline

Yet another deadline has been set to break the long impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

But despite the flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days — with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talking directly to top Israeli and Palestinian officials — it is still far from certain whether any agreement is imminent.

In her latest effort, Albright is now urging Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations — and the two sides are heeding the call, agreeing to hold meetings after Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat returns from a trip to China by the end of the week.

Albright’s call for such a meeting clearly represents a new step by the Clinton administration, which for months has been acting as a go-between for the two sides.

She is in effect sending the two parties back to where they were more than a year ago, when their negotiations collapsed amid a series of mutual recriminations.

Israel, in fact, had favored the direct negotiations with the Palestinians – - until they reached such a stalemate that Jerusalem asked the United States to intervene as mediator.

In recent days, too, Israeli officials welcomed the suggestion that they meet with their Palestinian counterparts.

But in a sign that Jerusalem and Washington had different expectations from such a meeting, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Monday that the “ball is in the court of the Israelis to try to work with the Palestinians and with us” to reach an agreement on the American plan for breaking the stalemate in the negotiations.

The Palestinian Authority had months ago agreed to the U.S. plan — under which Israel would redeploy from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian steps on security issues.

Rubin was making it clear once again Monday that the administration believes it is time for Israel to sign on as well.

Indeed, American officials have given the two sides until the end of the month to reach an agreement.

But there have been many previous deadlines — and they came and went without any breakthrough.

Although Israel seems reluctantly to have accepted the general outlines, with some modifications, of the U.S. plan, Netanyahu is still holding out for several conditions that the Palestinians — who claim they have already made a large concession by agreeing to the 13 percent further redeployment — oppose with equal obstinacy.

While the prospect of a high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting raises expectations, many obstacles remain.

Within Netanyahu’s Cabinet, moreover, there are powerful figures — such as Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — who have not agreed to the 13 percent figure.

Given the opposition from hawkish Cabinet and Knesset members, Netanyahu is said to be fearing — as he has for months — the possible fall of his coalition in a Knesset vote of no-confidence in the redeployment agreement, if and when one is reached.

At the same time, moderate figures in the Israeli government are joining U.S. officials in citing the end of July as the deadline for reaching an agreement.

The Third Way Party, which holds four Knesset seats, says it will reconsider its participation in Netanyahu’s government if that date passes without an accord.

The fervently Orthodox Shas Party, with 10 seats, is also voicing its commitment to the peace process and the conclusion of an agreement.

Meanwhile, within the Cabinet, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai has made it clear that his patience is wearing thin.

He is ready, he says, to negotiate with any top Palestinian officials — but only if he is empowered by the Cabinet to clinch a deal.

As part of his effort to bolster the moderate position at the Cabinet table, Mordechai has been attempting to persuade David Levy — who resigned as foreign minister last year, citing differences with Netanyahu about the peace process and social policy issues — to return to the government.

Beyond the upcoming meeting between the two sides — and despite the recent diplomatic activity — there appears little new in the atmosphere surrounding the negotiating impasse.

With her suggestion that Israel and the Palestinians talk directly to each other, Albright was sending a message to the parties that the United States cannot play intermediary forever.

But Washington has sent this message repeatedly in the past six months, to no avail.

Last week, there was speculation of an imminent breakthrough after it was reported that Albright had had seven telephone conversations with Netanyahu in a matter of three days. Nothing apparently came of the calls.

Then, at the end of last week, she met with two Palestinian officials in Washington.

Similar expectations were raised when Netanyahu convened his Inner Security Cabinet — which includes Mordechai, Sharon and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky — this week and last. But those sessions were inconclusive.

There has been this sort of flurry before — with little to show for it.

The pronouncements coming from Israel also create a strong sense of deja vu.

Israeli officials have repeatedly been stating that an agreement is close — if only the Palestinians agree to a series of Israeli demands relating to security issues.

These demands — all of which have been put forward for many months, include:

abrogation of the Palestinian Covenant by the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians’ parliament in exile.

The Netanyahu government has always contended that an apparent repeal of anti- Israel clauses in the covenant by a large majority of the PNC in April 1996 was inadequate.

During his news briefing on Monday, Rubin made it clear that the United States does not share Israel’s concerns on this issue.

extradition of terrorists by the Palestinian Authority to Israel. The Palestinians have never accepted this provision of the Cairo Agreement of 1995, which was one of a series of Israeli-Palestinian accords.

They point to a clause under which a person convicted and jailed by the Palestinian courts need not be handed over to the Israelis.

A solution reportedly proposed by U.S. officials, and yet to be accepted by either side, involves the creation of an American observer unit that would monitor those terrorists serving sentences in Palestinian jails to ensure, as Israel has long charged, that they are not subject to a “revolving door” judicial system that soon sets them free.

confiscation of weapons from the Palestinian populace. Israel complains that there are many thousands of rifles and heavier weapons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in contravention of the accords, which require all licensed weapons to be registered.

Given the relative ease with which small arms can be smuggled into the territories, this demand by Jerusalem will be difficult to satisfy.

reduction in the number of Palestinian police. The ceiling set by the accords is 16,000; the actual number is more than twice that.

The Palestinians argue that Israel’s insistence on stiff anti-terrorism measures requires a bigger police force. Israel contends that in an armed confrontation, Israel would face a sizable foe.

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