As Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed this week, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was caught between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, a peace deal could be just what the premier, trailing badly in the polls, needs to boost his chances when Israel elects a prime minister Feb. 6.
On the other hand, Barak could suffer if voters believe he made too many concessions in order to reach a hasty pre- election accord.
On Sunday, Barak made two promises that appeared to cover this bind.
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio, he vowed to try to reach an accord that would “end the occupation and the rule over another people.”
Barak then promised not to make any concessions on two key Palestinian demands.
“Israel will not accept under any circumstances the right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel, he said.
“As prime minister, I will not sign any document which hands over sovereignty on the Temple Mount to the Palestinians,” he added.
Speaking hours before talks began at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, Barak held no illusions about the likelihood of reaching an agreement, considering his stance on the two issues and the Palestinians’ stated unwillingness to compromise.
Describing the talks as the “story of a painful divorce, of surgery without anesthesia,” Barak said that in the short time left before Israel’s elections, “with the gaps that exist, the chance of bridging them is not great.”
Palestinian officials likewise were less than optimistic about what might emerge from the Taba talks.
“We hope the Israelis will change their positions, because we can’t make concessions regarding the right of return,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath said Sunday.
“We are not going to make an agreement just because time is running out” before the Israeli elections, Sha’ath said.
The talks at Taba are expected to last about 10 days.
The Israeli team includes Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak aide Gilead Sher and Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
Sha’ath, senior negotiator Saeb Erekat, legislative speaker Ahmed Karia and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo are leading the Palestinian team.
Beilin said the two sides would discuss the proposals President Clinton set forth in the month before he left office Saturday.
Clinton’s proposals call for far-reaching concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Most controversial for Israelis is a proposal to cede control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Israel also would divide Jerusalem, with Arab neighborhoods coming under Palestinian rule.
In exchange, the Palestinians would scale back their demand that descendants of the Arab refugees who fled or were expelled in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel. Even the most dovish Israelis consider this a veiled call to eliminate the Jewish state.
Israel’s “Peace Cabinet” – which includes a team of ministers dealing specifically with the peace process – agreed on Saturday to the Taba talks. Nevertheless, most of the ministers expressed doubts that any agreement could be reached before the elections.
It was at Taba that the two sides held marathon negotiations before reaching the 1995 Interim Agreement. Under that accord, the Palestinian Authority gained control over the major Arab population centers in the West Bank.
Compounding the difficulties facing the two sides, opposition leader Ariel Sharon – the runaway front-runner in election polls – has made it clear that he will not consider himself bound by an accord reached on the eve of the vote.
Though Palestinians often have claimed that they see no difference between the left-of-center Barak and Israel’s harder-line Likud politicians, some analysts believe the Palestinians may now be eager for a deal, realizing they would get far more from Barak than from Sharon.
Summing up this sentiment, Ha’aretz correspondent Amira Hass wrote, “It’s clear that they are scared of Sharon.”
Arab leaders have been warning that a Sharon victory would spell an end to the peace process.
On Sunday, the prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, said the election of Sharon would be tantamount to a call for war.