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Citizens on Both Sides Skeptical That a Deal Will Amount to Much

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It has been a dramatic week in Camp David, with historic peace talks saved only by a last-minute decision to remain at the retreat for one last chance for an agreement when President Clinton returns from Japan.

But back home on the streets of Ramallah and Jerusalem, there was no sense of drama, no feeling that history is in the making.

Israelis and Palestinians were simply struggling to figure out what was happening.

Compared with the euphoria that swept through the region when the 1993 Oslo accords were signed, people on both sides were simply worn out after seven years of interim agreements that have failed to end the conflict.

“It is a failing process,” says Muhammad Ali el-Malukh, a 65-year-old Palestinian wearing traditional Arab garb. “The Jews don’t want to give us what is ours, and they don’t respect their own signature,” he says, echoing a common Palestinian complaint that Israel does not implement agreements as signed.

Like many Palestinians on the bustling streets of downtown Ramallah, el-Malukh has no hopes from the Camp David summit. He warns that the way things are going, Israel can expect a new intifada, or uprising.

“But this time, the area will become like south Lebanon,” he says. “It won’t be with stones, it will be with guns.”

On the bustling streets in the commercial district of downtown Ramallah, many people support Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as he stands firm on Palestinian demands and issue warnings of chaos if no accord is reached.

People here also say that their support for Arafat will run dry if he compromises on any core Palestinian demands, including a state including all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in Jerusalem.

“For us, even having a state on all of the West Bank is a compromise,” said Issam, a 28-year-old political activist who works in the local prisoners club. Even though Barak is believed to be offering that Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank, many Palestinians say all of the West Bank represents only one-fifth of what was theirs before the state of Israel was established in 1948.

“The end of the conflict,” says Issam, “will only come when I receive everything that belongs to me by right.”

Indeed, much of the skepticism on the Palestinian street stems from their pessimism that a final peace deal will improve their situation. Ya’akub al- Ashkar, a Ramallah resident, says despite Palestinian autonomy in several cities he still has problems traveling freely between them.

“The most important thing is that whatever agreement is signed will increase our freedom and reduce friction with the Israelis,” he says. “But I am afraid that this conflict will be forever.”

This is the last thing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wants to hear, as he prepared to press ahead with a few more days of negotiations. For Barak – and Israelis – a key to winning support for the major compromises reportedly being offered is that Israelis will accept them if an end to the conflict is declared.

But back in Israel, hard-liners like Moshe, a 40-year-old Orthodox alternative medical specialist who did not give his last name, have no such illusions.

“It’s preposterous,” says Moshe of the negotiations taking place in Camp David. “From a religious perspective, you cannot give away Eretz Yisrael,” referring to the biblical land of Israel, “and the peace they are selling it for will not finish the conflict.”

“They are all liars,” says Moshe. “We simply cannot trust them.”

Closer to the center, many Israelis like Gilad Rogel, a Jerusalem attorney, are simply waiting for something to happen in Camp David to clear up the confusion.

“I have to see the details of an agreement before I decide where I stand,” he says. “What I do know is that there is no middle road this time. Without an agreement, things will rapidly deteriorate towards a serious conflict.”

An increasing number of Israelis are quietly coming to terms with trusting the Palestinians, even in their backyard of Jerusalem. Not long ago, it was taboo to even contemplate giving up parts of eastern Jerusalem.

But as Dudu Goeli, a 28-year-old Israeli civil servant, monitored the discussions at Camp David, he had no qualms about handing parts of the city over to the Palestinians.

“I used to be against the peace process completely,” says Goeli. “Now, I think that if giving the Palestinians control” of eastern Jerusalem “will give them a good feeling and seal a final peace accord, then why not? We don’t go there anyway.”

Advocates of views like these plan a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin square on Sunday to serve as a counterweight to the right-wing demonstration held there earlier this week.

Even if a painful agreement is somehow reached at Camp David next week – and, subsequently, the pragmatists win the streets in Israel and Palestinians reconcile themselves to receiving less than their demands – both leaders know the dangers looming around the corner come from the periphery, especially on Jerusalem.

“Nothing is more susceptible to the tribal drumbeat than the subject of Jerusalem, and the drummers will be working overtime,” says Danny Siedemann, a left-wing Israeli attorney and an expert on Jerusalem.

“The extremes are small, but the power of their myths and narratives radiate well beyond their own hinterland.”

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