Palestinians worry about being sidelined for Syria

JERUSALEM, Dec. 19 (JTA) — The resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations has set off alarm bells among some Palestinian officials.

Their concern centers on one possibility: that Israel will focus on achieving a peace agreement with Damascus while letting the talks with the Palestinian Authority languish.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak attempted to dispel such concern over the weekend, telling Israel Television that he is ready to negotiate simultaneously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks.

“One track should not jeopardize the other,” he said.

However, Barak, like his political mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is known to prefer the Syrian talks.

To him, the rules of the game are much clearer with Syria, a sovereign state whose dispute with Israel is clearly defined.

He may want to advance simultaneously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks, but he’s likely more attracted to the historic opportunity to reach a quick breakthrough with the Syrians.

Barak’s public assurances are leaving many Palestinians unconvinced.

One Palestinian analyst, Khalil Shikaki, was quoted as doubting whether Barak can afford to make two peace deals involving Israeli withdrawals — from the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement with Damascus; from the West Bank, with the Palestinians — and still retain the support of the Israeli electorate.

Among those expressing wariness of Barak is civil rights activist and former Palestinian Cabinet member Hanan Ashrawi.

While the Israeli-Syrian track can be expected to proceed quickly, she wrote on her Web site, “the Palestinian track will continue to be embroiled” in difficulties.

While describing the Israeli-Syrian track as relatively uncomplicated, she said the agenda for the Israeli-Palestinian final-status talks “involves ideological and demographic and human issues, including Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.”

She is among those who are wary that the Israeli prime minister may use the talks with Syria as a pretext to squeeze more concessions from the Palestinians.

If an Israeli-Syrian agreement is reached, “more pressure will be exerted to bring the Palestinians to a quick or premature settlement even at the expense of substance,” she wrote.

Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior aide to Arafat, warned in a speech last week against “attempts to play one track off the other” and urged a concerted stance with Syria that would “plug all the gaps in the Arab position.”

Such statements provided the background to Arafat’s strong and uncompromising address before his Cabinet over the weekend.

Arafat reemphasized the Palestinian Authority’s insistence on implementing the Security Council’s land-for-peace resolutions 242 and 338.

He also spoke of a total Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied during the Six-Day War, “to the borders of June 4, 1967.”

His mention of that date was not accidental. Syria has long been demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to the border that existed before the 1967 war. Arafat was implying that the Palestinians should not settle for anything less when it comes to the West Bank.

The European Union’s Middle East envoy is meanwhile calling for all the peace tracks to move forward in tandem.

Miguel Moratinos told JTA over the weekend that there should be a “parallel and global approach in the peace process” in which Israel’s negotiations with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians are all related.

“Sometimes we lose the perspective of the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, which adopted a comprehensive approach,” he said.

“The best way is to advance in all tracks — just what Barak is trying to pursue.”

President Clinton is currently trying to allay the Palestinian fears that they will be sidetracked.

Clinton made a point of mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian talks during last week’s Washington meetings between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

He also called Arafat and told him that Middle East envoy Dennis Ross would come to the region at the end of the month to help achieve progress in the final-status negotiations.

But some Palestinian officials are remaining cautious.

“We want to see how the Americans deal with us in the coming weeks,” said Nabil Amr, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet.

“Because they consider the Syrian track the most important breakthrough in the peace process, they’ll concentrate on reaching a real achievement on the Syrian track. They’ll send us messages from time to time, but I’m not sure that they’ll push as hard.”

Much of the Palestinian discontent has to do with the fact that the negotiations with Israel have remained mired in disagreements.

The two sides remain deadlocked over an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 5 percent of the West Bank, a move that was to take place last month.

The Palestinians, who demanded more densely populated areas than Israel offered, have stated that they want a say in which lands will be turned over; Israeli officials just as steadfastly maintain that the decision is theirs alone to make.

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their negotiations Sunday, there was another major point of disagreement — the continued expansion of Jewish settlements.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis, said that neither side could afford to put their talks on the back burner.

“We are on the same street corner, in the same shop,” he said. “There is no comparison between the Palestinian track and the other tracks. We are the core of the problem.”

For all those expressing caution, there are some Palestinian officials who see advantages in the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks.

They believe that an Israeli agreement to withdraw from the Golan could strengthen Palestinian demands for lands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“This will be a precedent for us,” said Ahmad Abdel Rahman, secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet.

NEXT STORY