Israeli-Palestinian talks: Frozen or just on hold?


JERUSALEM, Feb. 8 (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, long at odds over a host of issues, again cannot even agree on whether peace talks have reached a crisis.

On Sunday, Palestinian negotiators did not show up for the latest round of marathon talks aimed at reaching next week’s deadline for crafting an outline of a final peace accord.

By the following day, they indefinitely suspended their participation in the talks.

Also Monday, the Palestinian Authority released one of the top Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantissi. The release of Rantissi, an outspoken critic of the peace process, was widely seen as a slap in Israel’s face.

On the Israeli side, there are optimistic voices suggesting that the present difficulties, like so many before, will drift away with time.

But the Palestinians are insisting that their suspension of the talks is not tactical, but reflects a real rupture of trust between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

On Tuesday, Arafat ordered his minister of agriculture to cancel a scheduled meeting with his Israeli counterpart to discuss the theft of farm equipment.

The chill in the relationship set in on Feb. 3 at a bad-tempered meeting between Barak and Arafat at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Arafat left angrily. A joint press conference that had been tentatively scheduled to take place after the meeting was sheepishly canceled.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy faced reporters alone, asserting that there was “no crisis” and that the two sides were too deeply committed to let any transient problems destroy all they had built up together.

There is an abiding Palestinian suspicion that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, though now also suspended, will resume and shunt aside their own peace process with the Israelis.

They feel that Barak, given the choice, would prefer a quick deal with the Syrians to inevitably divisive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace accord, which both sides have agreed to reach by September.

There is also the fear among the current Palestinian leadership for the future of the entire peace process, and for their own positions and futures in the hierarchy, should Arafat die or become incapacitated.

Over 70, the longtime PLO leader is likely to remain unchallengeable as long as he remains healthy. But once he dies, more radical forces within the Palestinian national movement or among religious circles could quickly come to the fore.

The Palestinians are citing three reasons for the present crisis — all of which reflect, they say, the high-handed treatment Barak has given them, Israel’s partners in the peace process:

• The Palestinian Cabinet rejected Israel’s maps for an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 6 percent of the West Bank because the areas involved did not include the Jerusalem suburbs of Abu Dis and a-Ram. Israel has repeatedly maintained that it has sole say in determining which lands would be turned over.

The Palestinians are also angry over suggestions that Israel does not plan to carry out an additional withdrawal that is supposed to take place before a final peace agreement is achieved. Israeli officials have been suggesting that this final withdrawal be subsumed within the final-status talks.

• The Palestinians claim that Barak’s decision to defer next week’s deadline for drafting a framework agreement — and, by implication, the entire effort to reach this framework — was made unilaterally.

The Palestinians point out that they were skeptical when Barak originally proposed the deadline last year. But having signed on, they now feel it was arbitrary of Barak to have canceled it.

• Palestinian officials are also disturbed by what they say is Barak’s refusal to recommit himself publicly to the September deadline for reaching the final peace accord.

With all eyes focused on Israel’s northern border this week — on the escalation between Israel and Hezbollah and its possible implications for the Israeli-Syrian peace track — the anger within the Palestinian leadership tended to get short shrift in the Israeli media, and perhaps less-than-adequate attention in policymaking circles.

But if the escalation in the north results in a long suspension of the Israeli-Syrian track, the government in Jerusalem will be anxious to renew movement on the Palestinian track.

But it is now questionable whether the Palestinians will be prepared to set aside their doubts and return to the negotiating table.

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