GAINING NO GROUND

Final-Status Oslo Talks Slowed By Interim Land Dispute

After Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to "work hard" to forge a blueprint for resolving their long-standing conflict by February, final-status talks have been shackled by a fray over two IDF redeployments needed to conclude the interim stage. With only ten weeks left till deadline, the two sides hope to break the interim stalemate with US help and rid the limping permanent status talks of its drag effect. But as time pressures mount and both parties remain anchored on opening positions, the Oslo peace process increasingly is marked by pessimism and impatience.

Despite some testy moments, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat left their summit in Oslo with US President Bill Clinton in early November seemingly energized by the event's peculiar attempt to summon courage from the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. To keep to the schedule laid out at Sharm e-Sheik, the negotiating teams needed to convene immediately to begin crafting a framework agreement for final-status talks by February 13.

Barak seemed especially determined to stay on schedule after a series of pipe bombs exploded on November 7 in a busy downtown section of Netanya, wounding 34. Although police have yet to crack the case, it came the morning after Hamas faxed Reuters a statement promising to step up terror attacks to sabotage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an eerie replay of the Haifa and Tiberias car bombings in September, Barak received word of the terrorist incident while his cabinet was in session. Barak told the cabinet the country is going into a "tough and fateful period," and emerged vowing to press on with the peace process. The next day, final-status negotiators met as scheduled in hopes that the ambitious timetable will keep opponents of Oslo off balance.

The head of the Palestinian team, hard-liner Yasser Abed Rabbo, justified the Netanya attack as understandable in light of Israeli settlement policy. "Expansion of settlements will be the first point on the agenda of the final-status talks and without a halt to settlement activities there will be no progress," he said.

Knowing settlements are a sore subject with the Palestinians, Barak issued a stern warning that the IDF would promptly remove five remaining encampments in Judea/Samaria that did not voluntarily vacate pursuant to an agreement reached with the YESHA council. The YESHA leadership bought a little time for compliant families being uprooted from four outposts, but quietly informed the prime minister they had lost sway with young activists, dubbed "Next Generation," converging on the Maon Farm - established south of Hebron on the site where three Palestinian shepherds murdered Israeli Dov Dribben last year.

Barak soon ordered in hundreds of unarmed soldiers to stamp out the mini-revolt in an early morning storming of the Maon Farm. The strong show of force quickly overpowered the scattered resistance, including protesters who took refuge in the encampment's makeshift synagogue. Nevertheless, the Maon rebels felt the emotion-laden scene had delivered a message and vowed to return.

With less than 100 days left to flesh out a framework agreement, Barak had his own message to convey - zero tolerance for domestic opposition to his peace moves. He knew that despite their harsh rhetoric, the Palestinians decided to enter final-status talks without a prior Israeli freeze on settlements. Barak used the stand-off at Maon Farm to show the Palestinians he is serious about keeping the settlers in check.

According to Israeli analysts, Barak has pinned much hope on a quiet "back channel" with Arafat, away from the formal talks, to clinch quick trade-offs on the thorniest issues - Jerusalem, settlements and refugees - in order to meet the February timeframe. But the personal rapport needed for such direct, high-level talks began to show signs of wear.

While Barak and Arafat smiled hand-in-hand on stage at a socialist gathering in Paris in mid-November, separately they were trading blows. In one incident, Arafat blamed the Netanya bombing on Israeli mafia. Arafat then sneered when Barak gave notice Israel no longer considers UN Security Council resolution 242 - adopted after the 1967 Six-Day War - fully applicable to Judea/Samaria and Gaza. Always a bone of contention, Barak now maintains 242's references to borders apply only to Egypt and Syria, and not to the unrecognized "Green Line" with Jordan (which occupied the "West Bank" by force in 1948.)

Barak and Arafat clashed again at a surprise late-night meeting at Mossad headquarters near Tel Aviv, as Arafat refused to sign maps showing the 5% of Judea/Samaria to be handed over to PA rule in the second of Sharm's interim withdrawals. Arafat balked at Israel's offer of "barren" lands, demanding instead populated areas linking PA enclaves near Jerusalem. Barak held his ground, saying the relevant accords give Israel sole discretion to designate areas to be ceded, a position endorsed in the past by US State Department officials. [Interestingly, the US and PA seemed to find the same principle much less palatable when asserted by former Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu.]

Until now, the PA fought hard over the percentages of territory to be transferred, but never seriously challenged Israel's withdrawal maps. But now that talks are underway which will determine the final borders, the Palestinians fomented an argument out of concern Israel was setting a precedent for dictating the size and shape of their embryonic state.

Arafat has indicated he will accept the second pullback maps, provided Barak agrees to consult with him about the third-and-last withdrawal set for January. His apparent aim is to secure a foothold during the interim stage in Abu Dis, the Jerusalem suburb Arafat envisions as his seat of government. This would allow him to declare a state in areas already under PA control sometime after February, as Barak has suggested recently, while continuing to negotiate the final peace deal.

The impasse spilled over into final-status negotiations, slowing progress in talks which have just over ten weeks left to craft a framework agreement outlining terms of a final settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Some early progress was reported, as the teams finalized a working agenda identifying 11 items to be resolved in the permanent settlement. The sides also agreed the document will not postpone any of the more explosive issues - Jerusalem, refugees - for some extended phase of the peace process.

But later rounds of talks stagnated, as the PA tabled sweeping new demands, including a lavish, novel claim for compensation for Israel's "occupation" of Judea/Samaria and Gaza since 1967. While no monetary figures were quoted, the PA promised they would be forthcoming. The PA officially said it will accept nothing less than 100% of Judea/Samaria and Gaza, along with eastern Jerusalem, which all must be free of Jews. And they vowed not to compromise on the Palestinian "right of return."

These rigid positions were attended by hard-line rhetoric away from the bargaining table, as Arafat lashed out repeatedly against the "Judaization" of Jerusalem and the "besieging" of Bethlehem. Adopting a frantic tone, Arafat even lamented that Israel's approval of new housing units in Efrat was an attempt to spoil Millennium festivities in nearby Bethlehem and around the world.

As if to illustrate the dearth of progress, Barak sounded inflexible when broaching the sensitive subject of refugees, stressing that his government will never take moral responsibility for creating the refugee problem, nor allow Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Soon after, Barak was curiously slow in denying press reports he had admitted the February 13 deadline was "over-ambitious" and now impossible to meet.

Both sides do admit they have registered little progress in either interim or final-status tracks of late, as the negotiating teams reverted to opening positions. Any hopes that US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit in early December will break the logjam are slim.

When launching accelerated final-status talks in September, the parties hoped to wind up the interim phase swiftly and move apace into the critical final stages of the Oslo process. The hobbling tandem of interim and final-status talks now has Palestinians nervous Arafat may be making broad concessions in secret talks, while Israelis are frustrated the PA is stalling for American intervention. Yet Barak has seemingly failed in his bid to charm Arafat one-on-one, leaving one Israeli cabinet minister to conclude that if Albright does not revive the process at once, there is "no way" the gaps between the sides can be bridged by February.


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