When Israel suspended negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization this week, it was a reflection of the surprise and anger felt here in the wake of the PLO’s latest moves.
The surprise came when the PLO, which seemed to have accepted the security arrangements worked out in Cairo last week, made a sudden turnaround and announced publicly that no agreement had been reached.
The Israeli government’s anger, most evident during the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, was based on the sense that the PLO could not be taken at its word.
There has also been growing concern here about the erosion of support for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat within his own organization. There have been numerous defections by his young cadres in the territories and harsh criticisms of his leadership style by more established figures in the organization.
As a result of these disparate factors, there are varying assessments about the likelihood that the stalled negotiations for implementing Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho will soon once again move ahead.
The most authoritative word on the subject came from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who, always cautious, predicted Tuesday that “in the coming days” the impasse would be overcome.
“We both share an interest in the talks going forward,” Rabin said. But “not at any price,” he added, in comments to reporters after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.
From Tunis, site of the PLO headquarters, there were similarly mixed and cautious signals.
But in the past few days there has been an intensive exchange of phone calls and faxes between senior Arafat adviser Nabil Sha’ath and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. This has provided much support for the view that the PLO indeed shares Israel’s interest in resolving the present crisis.
The crisis erupted over the New Year’s weekend, just as it seemed that a previous crisis was over.
After three rounds of high-level talks – in Oslo, then in Paris and Versailles, and finally in Cairo – it seemed that both sides and finally reached an agreement for implementing the self-rule accord.
But then, as Peres, the chief Israeli negotiator, was celebrating his success, the PLO proclaimed that there had been no agreement after all.
According to the PLO, there had merely been a draft of an Israeli working paper – and Arafat soon announced that he objected to several of its details.
Following the predictably angry reaction of the Rabin government, Israel offered a slight change of stance.
Peres conceded that it was “legitimate” for Arafat to reject the Cairo agreement, even though that meant overruling Mahmoud Abbas, who had headed the PLO delegation at the Cairo talks.
“But what then do you propose?” Peres asked in a radio interview, addressing the PLO leadership. “If you reject the Cairo understandings, how then do we continue toward implementation?”
The obstacles preventing implementation of the self-rule accord signed by Israel and the PLO in September revolve security issues, most importantly the question of who will control the borders between Gaza and Egypt and between Jericho and Jordan.
Peres and Rabin have insisted that Israel has made every effort to accommodate PLO sensitivities – what they term “Palestinian honor” – by agreeing to dual control procedures at the border crossing points.
But after allowing for a Palestinian presence at the borders, Rabin and Peres insisted that Israel could not relinquish its military control of the borders.
“In matters of security,” Peres told the British foreign secretary Tuesday, “there will be no compromise whatsoever.”
Peres pointed out that the PLO had honored its commitment to desist from acts of terrorism, but that this alone was not sufficient, in the long term, as a security guarantee for Israel.
And Rabin, also meeting with Hurd on Tuesday, went a bit further in his criticisms of the PLO, saying that it was not adhering to the spirit of the self-rule accord.
This, Rabin said, was the biggest stumbling block in the current talks.
Hurd, who was in Jerusalem as part of a Middle East tour, was careful not to get caught up in the charges and countercharges that have disrupted the negotiating process.
He stressed he was not in the area as a mediator between Israel and the PLO. But he also remarked that despite all the difficulties, he believed there was no turning back.
“I just feel as an outsider, as a well-wisher, that all those concerned are perhaps in the middle of a river, but they have passed the point where it’s easier to go back than to go forward,” he said.
Leaving aside the question of whether the negotiations have passed the point of no return, some Israeli and American sources were quoted as suggesting that the upcoming meeting between President Clinton and Syria’s President Hafez Assad, scheduled for Jan. 16 in Geneva, would serve as a catalyst for a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Certain American sources went so far as to claim that the Clinton administration had actually foreseen the present deadlock – and had scheduled the Clinton-Assad meeting with an eye toward breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
During the negotiations in Oslo last summer that resulted in the self-rule accord, Israel did on occasion “threaten” to focus its efforts on reaching a deal with Syria – and this had indeed prodded the Palestinians to move ahead.
But there can be no certainly at all that what worked then would work now.
the optimists, at any rate, still cling to their belief that both Israel and the PLO share an interest in getting their talks back on track before the Clinton-Assad meeting.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.