Israeli-PLO negotiations to resume


JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will try again today to break a deadlock that has frozen the start of a plan to begin Arab autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Both sides predict that a solution will be found, but so far it has been unexpectedly elusive.

The deadlock, which delayed the envisaged start of Israeli troop withdrawals last week, is the result of a collision of differing expectations and hardening strategies by both sides.

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are both pressed by extremists who feel their side's negotiators already have given too much.

Both sides now have dug in their heels, abandoning the spirit of compromise that produced their historic agreement Sept. 13.

"It is regrettable what the Israelis are doing," PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat told reporters in Tunis, Tunisia, yesterday.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," said a chief Israeli negotiator, Uri Savir.

The disagreements involve details of how many square miles and who will man checkposts and where military jeeps may run -- all matters of logistics that seem ripe for practical compromise.

The hang-up is that these questions have important symbolic implications, which neither side is willing to concede.

The Palestinians want to signal that they will eventually have a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israelis want it clear that they will continue to control the area being given over to Palestinian autonomy.

"There is a basic gap in positions. Yasser Arafat thinks that this is a process to establish a Palestinian state," said Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. "We are talking only about a transitional period of autonomy to test whether coexistence is possible."

Neither position was settled in the simply worded agreement signed on the White House lawn Sept. 13. Now both sides are trying to claim ground in the loopholes. It has become a tug-of-war of symbols.

A meeting between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Arafat in Cairo on Dec. 12 failed to break the impasse, as did two days of secret meetings last weekend in Oslo, Norway. Negotiators are to resume their attempt today in Paris.

The most vexing problem is the bridges. These are border crossings between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and between Jericho and Jordan, now run by Israeli soldiers.

Crossing those borders has been one of the most infuriating exercises of the occupation for Palestinians. Arabs seeking to visit families scattered across Jordan and Egypt are subject to harsh restrictions, long interrogations, humiliation and arbitrary rejections at the bridge.

The Palestinians see it as a vital symbol that people crossing those bridges meet a Palestinian official, not an Israeli. The official would carry a double meaning: The occupation is over, and the Palestinian areas are a quasi-state with borders.

The Palestinians have staked this out as a non-negotiable point. The PLO Executive Committee "gave directions to its delegation . . . to reject all partial or nominal solutions," said a statement from the PLO yesterday.

For precisely the same symbolic reasons, Israel will not relinquish control. To the symbolism, Israelis add the argument of security: Because there are no physical borders around Jericho, letting someone into that West Bank town is like allowing them into Israel.

Anyone crossing the border into Jericho, they point out, could be in Tel Aviv in an hour. By giving up control of the bridges, Israel would be giving up control of who comes into the country. Israelis warn there would be a flood of returning Palestinian refugees.

"For us, external security is the central thing," Mr. Rabin told the Knesset last week. "It is unthinkable that the Israeli army will not be deployed along the border with Egypt and Jordan. It's unthinkable we won't have control."

The proposed compromises so far have not worked. Palestinians suggested having an international force at the border and said Israelis could watch the bridge with electronic monitors. Israel has proposed letting Palestinian officials accompany Israelis at the bridge, with the final say resting with Israelis.

The second sticking point -- the size of Jericho -- could be more easily compromised, officials on both sides say. Yet that, too, has symbolic implications hard to overcome.

The Gaza Strip is defined by bristling barbed wire fences and clear boundaries. But Jericho is just a sprawling area three miles off the main road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

The Palestinians argue that Israel should withdraw from all of the Jericho district mapped in 1924 by the British -- an area of some 140 square miles that includes the banks of the Jordan River and the hills to the west. That area also includes about 17 Jewish settlements.

Israel has countered with an offer to withdraw from about 20 square miles, a tighter boundary around the center of the town of some 15,000 people. Palestinians find the Israeli offer the makings of a ghetto in a tight Israeli noose.

There are reports that both sides have given some ground but remain far apart on the area they define as Jericho.

Furthermore, the wrangling is seen as a sign Israel will not abide by the second phase of the agreement, which requires an Israeli pullback from all populated areas in the West Bank by July 1994. If Israel were going to do that, the Palestinians note, why would it argue so hard over the size of Jericho?

The Israelis see the broad Palestinian claim as a threat to the army's ability to patrol and control the border at the Jordan River. They also see the enlarged area as an attempt by Palestinians to encircle and

strangle the Israeli settlements, which the agreement provides will remain under Israeli control.

The final disagreement centers on how Israel will provide protection to those Jewish settlers. Although the Sept. 13 pact promises Israeli "withdrawal" from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, and redeployment in the rest of the West Bank, Palestinians see little difference from the current military occupation.

Under proposals from the Israeli army, soldiers would still patrol the roads leading to settlements, would be able to bar Palestinians from wide strips around the roads and settlements, and would be able to chase Palestinians into the Arab autonomous areas.

Israel, conversely, sees Palestinian rejection of these steps as a retreat from the agreement of Israeli control of the settlements. Israel will not give over the security of the settlements to the new Palestinian police. And Israelis say that restricting army patrols to the settlements themselves would turn the soldiers and the settlers into sitting ducks.

The continued disagreement is fueling opponents to the agreement.

"The peace agreement might have been a raw deal," mused the Arabic daily An-Nahar. "The Palestinians thought that the Oslo agreement meant getting rid of the Israelis and the beginning of a Palestinian state. But now we must admit that a state is far away."

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