News Analysis: Parties Relaunch Final-status Talks Amid Skepticism for a Timely Accord

Given the opening positions staked out by the Israelis and Palestinians at the start of their final-status talks this week, it is hard to imagine how the two sides will reach an agreement in one year.

Further clouding the atmosphere at Monday’s start of the talks, there appears to be little consensus among either side to make the concessions needed.

Israeli and Palestinian officials presumably resumed the long-suspended final- status talks on Sept. 13 — the sixth anniversary of the historic Rabin-Arafat handshake in Washington that launched the Oslo peace process — in order to add a touch of celebration to the event.

But the mood was far from upbeat as Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Abu Mazen, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s second- in-command, delivered their speeches.

The two officials seemed determined to present the toughest formulation of their positions.

The audience of diplomats, dignitaries and reporters found it hard to identify any common ground between Abu Mazen’s vision — of a Palestinian state extending across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and having Jerusalem as its capital — and Levy’s insistence that his country would not withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and that Jerusalem would remain united as Israel’s capital.

To an extent, of course, tough posturing at the start of this process is to be expected. If the two sides do not lay out their opening positions now, when would they do so?

In the Wye II accord signed at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik earlier this month, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to an ambitious schedule: a framework agreement on the final-status issues by February and a full accord by Sept. 13, 2000.

Last Friday, Israel transferred an additional 7 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian civil control, implementing the first phase of Wye II.

Now, with the start of the final-status talks, the two sides will have to confront the troubling issues that they avoided dealing with in the previous agreements — including final borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, water and security arrangements.

Finally faced with the prospect of grappling with the core issues of the conflict, there seems to be, at least among the Israelis, an instinctive shrinking back and a grasping for the familiar techniques of postponement: the “interim” agreement or the “partial” settlement.

Israeli officials — noting that the issue of Jerusalem alone could require decades to settle — are already saying that the Palestinians would be better off leaving some issues unresolved for the time being.

To insist on a full resolution of all the issues during the coming year, say these officials, may well lead to the collapse of the talks.

This sort of talk is a far cry from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s election promises that the 100-year conflict would be settled within 15 months, with no loose ends left to unravel in future talks.

Adding to the generally less-than-jubilant atmosphere surrounding the resumption of the final-status talks — which had an opening ceremony prior to the 1996 Israeli elections but have remained dormant ever since — were tensions within the Israeli government.

Barak warned his ministers on Monday to refrain from making statements about the negotiations.

The premier pointed no fingers, but his aides mentioned a slew of Cabinet members who had expressed skepticism in recent days about Barak’s ambitious timetable for the talks.

Especially awkward were the comments of two Cabinet members — Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, the two architects of the original Oslo process — both of whom have now been sidelined from active day-to-day diplomacy.

Even the question of who will head the negotiating teams has yet to be resolved. Levy is not expected to be Israel’s full-time representative, but Barak has yet to appoint one.

For their part, the Palestinians announced Monday that their delegation would be led by Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of information.

Israeli sources greeted this news with a scowl: Rabbo, though urbane and personable, is considered a hard-liner given to sloganeering rather than to seeking conciliatory solutions.

Ultimately, as Beilin said Monday, the possibility of bringing the permanent- status talks to a successful conclusion depends on the political will of both sides — on their “readiness to touch the real issues and the real solutions,” instead of reiterating their unproductive but politically safe slogans.

Beilin referred obliquely to the draft accord he reached with Abu Mazen back in 1995, just before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

That accord reportedly provided for Israel’s withdrawal from more than 90 percent of the West Bank; Israel’s annexation of blocs of settlements; a Palestinian capital at Abu Dis, just outside Jerusalem; and a sovereign, but demilitarized Palestinian state.

Abu Mazen and other Palestinian officials now maintain that no paper was actually drawn up in 1995 and therefore any concession their side may have made in those informal discussions are not binding.

Barak, too, refuses to endorse, even privately, the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings.

And yet, once the two teams get organized and the talks begin in earnest, the Beilin-Abu Mazen experience will loom ever larger as the one serious effort made so far to reach concrete compromises on the core issues of the conflict.

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