Should we call him ‘Bibi’ Barak?

JERUSALEM, Feb. 22 (JTA) — Prime Minister Ehud Barak is trying to sound conciliatory, but a growing number of Palestinian officials see only intransigence and are beginning to compare him to his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meeting this week with U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, Barak offered to be flexible in an effort to restart the suspended Israeli- Palestinian talks.

Barak said he is willing to reconsider Israeli maps detailing the next withdrawal — from 6.1 percent of the West Bank.

But at the same time, he made it clear that he would not include villages near Jerusalem — a key Palestinian demand.

Barak also suggested May as a new target date for reaching agreement on a framework for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

The original deadline, Feb. 13, came and went with little progress achieved on the host of difficult issues involved in a final peace agreement, including the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Israeli sources say Barak’s new flexibility may include the much- delayed opening of a northern safe-passage route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Until now, there has been only a southern route for Palestinians traveling between the two areas.

But is this enough to resolve the crisis affecting relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and effectively paralyzing their negotiations?

Palestinian spokesmen were quick to say that it was not nearly enough.

And the always reticent Ross seemed more tight-lipped than ever after his meeting with the premier.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Ross said after a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy this week.

The Palestinians say Barak’s announcement of the new May deadline is typical of his high-handed approach.

He did not even bother to inform them ahead of time that he was going to go public with this date, they say, even though they had been unenthusiastic about the original February deadline.

Moreover, say Palestinian officials, they now believe more strongly that the entire idea of a framework agreement should be quietly buried while the two sides concentrate on reaching a final peace accord by September.

Arafat has repeatedly stated in recent days that he will make a unilateral declaration of independence this year if the two sides cannot reach an accord then.

In addition to their criticism of the Israeli leader’s attitude, some Palestinians and others in the Arab world are now speaking openly about what they see as Barak’s flawed credibility.

Comparisons of Barak to Netanyahu, who was repeatedly pilloried by the Arab world as unreliable, appear not only in the Arabic media but in diplomatic conversations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is said to have told Arafat when they met last week that he no longer believes Barak when the Israeli leader reiterates his commitment and dedication to the peace process.

Meanwhile Israel’s opposition Likud Party are echoing Arab criticisms of Barak.

On Tuesday, the Likud issued a statement insisting that Barak’s new deadline was both unwise and untrustworthy.

Neither the Israeli public nor foreign leaders believe him, the statement said.

Observers say Barak’s standing is not yet as bad as Likud officials would portray it. But they warn against glibly dismissing the Palestinians’ criticisms.

The leadership of the Palestinian Authority, they say, is both deeply offended by its treatment at Barak’s hands and disturbed at what it sees as the Israeli leader’s clear preference to make progress on the Syria-Lebanon track.

More ominously, Israeli military and intelligence experts are warning the government that a new round of Palestinian popular unrest and violence could easily break out after Pope John Paul II visits the Holy Land next month.

These experts say the Palestinian leadership, eager not to be accused of spoiling the pontiff’s pilgrimage, is determined to curb political tensions before the visit occurs.

But after that, say the Israeli experts, violence may spread across the entire West Bank.

The question then will be not only whether Arafat and his government are capable of controlling and curbing the violence, but whether they want to.

Arafat’s repeated statements about a unilateral declaration of independence are likely seen in the Israeli intelligence community as preparing the Palestinian public for a possible return to a full frontal struggle against Israel.

An accord signed by Arafat and the pope earlier this month in Rome gave graphic illustration of the Palestinian Authority’s quasi-sovereign standing and its ability to conduct independent diplomacy — much to Israel’s chagrin.

When the pope joined Arafat in criticizing unilateral actions in Jerusalem — implicitly by Israel — the Palestinian leader got some satisfaction in the face of ongoing Israeli building and settlement expansion in and around Jerusalem.

In part in reaction to that development, and in part as a step to embarrass the government, Likud legislator Yehoshua Matza this week proposed a bill that would enshrine in law the present municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.

A majority of 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members would be needed to change those boundaries, but the leaders of three parties that belong to Barak’s governing coalition — the National Religious Party, Shas and the Center Party — have said they will support the bill.

If passed, it could throw the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations into a deep freeze.

Despite the current climate, officials in Barak’s circle are exuding confidence.

Once the talks with Syria get back on track and reach a quick agreement, they say, everything else will fall into place.

They hint that despite the public suspension of the negotiations with Damascus, talks are continuing informally or through third party intermediaries.

They also say they expect a return to the negotiating table within weeks.

They cite an overture made this week, when Syria suggested to Israel that they set up a site on the Golan Heights where Druse from opposite sides of the border can meet and talk. Until now, the villagers have had to shout across the cease-fire line from a distance of hundreds of yards.

Israel sees the overture from Damascus, made through the International Red Cross, as reflecting Syria’s intention to resume the stalled peace talks.

But there are also contradictory indications, among them a comment from Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who said Tuesday that Israeli officials are now proceeding with tourist and commercial projects on the Golan Heights.

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