Cautious optimism in Mideast

JERUSALEM, Dec. 20 (JTA) – A sense of cautious optimism, not experienced for many months, was palpable this week in Jerusalem, Gaza and Washington as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators launched a new round of peace talks in the United States.

Despite the conventional wisdom that 11 weeks of violence can only have hardened positions on both sides, seasoned observers of the region discern more complex effects on public opinion among Israelis and Palestinians.

While fear and hatred have deepened, so has the realization – among Israelis and at least some Palestinians – that a negotiated settlement is the only way to end this conflict.

Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators said after a trilateral meeting with President Clinton Wednesday that the discussions underway in Washington were “very, very serious.” The general tone of their remarks differed, however.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the two sides were “facing major difficulties and serious differences.”

In contrast, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami predicted that an agreement could be within reach “if we maintain the same spirit.”

In Israel, the political right has gained strongly in opinion polls since Palestinian violence began in late September. At the same time, the polls still reflect broad support for a deal establishing a Palestinian state that lives peacefully beside Israel.

For their part, Palestinian groups, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction and the Islamic movements, went on strike this week to protest the resumption of the peace talks.

However, Palestinian officials quoted in the Israeli media were more positive about the benefits of a peace deal.

Officials from both sides insist that the sudden, dramatic intensification of diplomatic efforts is not connected to Israel’s election timetable.

The Palestinians say it is not connected, either, to President Clinton’s retirement Jan. 20.

Plainly, though, the political and diplomatic calendars are intimately intertwined.

Israel’s election, scheduled for Feb. 6, creates not only a time frame but, inescapably, a target date.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would like nothing more than to present the electorate with the draft of a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians, personally endorsed by the most popular man in Israel, Bill Clinton.

Barak has said repeatedly that he sees the upcoming election as a choice between competing world views of peace and Israel’s place in the region.

He has pledged to submit any agreement to a public referendum, but would prefer to do so in the form of a regular election.

The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu has withdrawn his candidacy makes the choice starkly clear, in the eyes of the Barak camp.

Barak supporters depict Likud Party candidate Ariel Sharon as a hard- liner, while Barak will present himself either as the man who brought home the long-sought peace agreement or the one who went as far as possible without jeopardizing Israel’s vital interests.

Sharon, for his part, criticizes Barak as inexperienced, and says that if elected he will not honor an agreement concluded in the pre-election period, when Barak clearly has lost the confidence of the Knesset majority.

Labor says that Sharon agrees, in effect, that the election will serve as a referendum for the public to accept or reject a draft peace deal.

Some note, however, that if Barak loses it will be unclear whether the public is rejecting Barak’s peace terms, or Barak himself, who has not been personally popular.

Complicating matters is the possibility that former Prime Minister Shimon Peres will run for premier on Barak’s left, possibly forcing a second round of voting between the top two-vote getters.

Occasionally obscured in the political maneuvering is the new give-and-take that might produce the accord that eluded Barak, Arafat and Clinton at the Camp David summit in July.

Top Palestinian sources claim that extensive preliminary meetings here in the region have revealed greater Israeli flexibility on the issue of the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Palestinians erupted in violence after Sharon visited the holy site in late September. Palestinians say the visit was unbearably provocative, but many Israelis believe the Palestinians planned to resort to violence when they realized they could not achieve all their goals through negotiation, and used Sharon’s visit as a pretext.

Palestinians say Barak now is prepared to grant a future Palestinian state control over the Temple Mount and the adjacent, Palestinian-populated districts of the city.

At Camp David, the Israeli side reportedly offered the Palestinians sovereignty over Beit Hanina and Shuafat, two Arab suburbs of eastern Jerusalem, but not over areas closer to the Old City.

According to these Palestinian sources, Israel would receive ironclad arrangements – whether physical or merely diplomatic is unclear – preventing digging beneath the surface of the mount, where Jews believe remains of the Bible’s two Holy Temples are buried.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office deny that Barak has given any ground on the Temple Mount.

For their part, Israeli sources say the Palestinians seem more pragmatic on the other key issue that proved the obstacle to an agreement at Camp David: the demand that several million Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to homes their forebears fled in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Most Israelis consider this a veiled call for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

A senior P.A. official told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot this week that now, in the wake of violent unrest among Israeli Arabs when the Palestinian violence began, there is no chance that Israel’s Jewish majority will agree to a substantial return of Palestinian refugees.

“You take in hundreds of thousands of Russian” gentiles “but you don’t want Arabs,” the official said sourly.

In any event, both sides say the talks in Washington likely will focus on formulas enabling Israel to finesse a declarative recognition of the Palestinian “right of return,” but with detailed understandings that in the vast majority of cases this will mean only financial compensation.

Under such a plan, the international community would be urged to resettle refugees in many countries, not only in the Middle East. A small number would be allowed to reunite with their families in Israel, on humanitarian grounds.

For weeks, Israel had warned that the Palestinians would gain nothing from violence.

Yet on the territorial question, reports suggest that Barak now is prepared to be more generous than he was at Camp David, when he reportedly offered the Palestinians just under 90 percent of the West Bank.

Barak reportedly now is prepared to seriously consider swapping land inside Israel for the settlement blocs – areas close to the pre-1967 border that are heavily settled by Jews – that he seeks to annex.

One factor favorable to the negotiations in Washington this week – a discernible reduction in the amount of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week.

Still, the situation on the ground is far from calm. A major firefight erupted Monday night between Palestinians in Ramallah and soldiers guarding the nearby settlement of Psagot. Buses and private cars are ambushed daily on the roads of Gaza and the West Bank.

So far, there have been many lucky escapes. One major tragedy could quickly dash the renewed diplomatic momentum.

After insisting for weeks that violence must cease before negotiations resumed, Israeli officials now call only for a “reduction” in the level of violence, apparently prepared to negotiate under fire.

Some Palestinian leaders call openly for the violence to continue “until the occupation ends.” Rather than stopping or lowering the violence, they say, the armed struggle should be intensified alongside the negotiations.

Many Palestinian groups criticize the Palestinian Authority for agreeing to participate in the Washington talks.

The Palestinian Authority itself maintains an ambivalent posture.

Arafat was at pains to welcome a group of 10 leftist and Arab Knesset members who visited Gaza on Sunday.

While he railed at length against the alleged cruelty of the Israeli army, it was plain that he is seeking to play to Israeli public opinion.

Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shochat claimed this week that a draft agreement is ready for signing, and some of Arafat’s aides speak of an accord “within four weeks.”

But other Palestinians discourage any optimism, saying they were dragged to Washington reluctantly, under American pressure, and that they expect the same barren and frustrating experience they had at Camp David five months – and at least 330 lives – ago.

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