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Palestinians Weigh Hope Against History : Mideast: The Baker initiative hasn’t slowed the momentum of Israeli settlement activity in the disputed territories.

<i> Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist in Jerusalem. He is currently involved in the production of a documentary, "Palestinian Diaries," which will be shown on British television this fall</i>

Two weeks ago, when I returned home after spending a month abroad, I was shocked by how things had changed in such a short period of time. Driving to work was an eye-opener: More and more settlement buildings had gone up in Arab East Jerusalem intended for the exclusive use of Jews, mostly recent immigrants from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

Along with the vast increase in settlement activity, change is also evident in the attitudes of Palestinians. Before I left, most were looking favorably to the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker to begin a peace process. They felt that in light of the promises made during the Gulf War, the United States would now push for the respect of international law: U.N. Security Council resolutions would be enforced, and President’s Bush’s “new world order” would ensure the retrieval of the Palestinian homeland. But in the span of one month, Palestinian optimism was shattered and replaced by a combination of apathy, suspicion and skepticism.

This reaction reflected the impotence that Palestinians felt after it became clear that the United States wasn’t willing to put the same effort in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as it did in ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Maybe this feeling was best summed up by Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian professor who, when she met with him here two weeks ago, asked Baker not to come to the area any more, because with each trip, Palestinians pay a higher price in more Jewish settlements being built.

The settlement issue was a perfect example of the gap between the U.S. positions of principle and what was happening on the ground. Record-setting settlement activity was taking place despite Baker’s testimony in Congress about the settlements being the “greatest obstacle.” The illegal building on expropriated Arab land continued despite the Arab countries’ unprecedented and generous offer to end the Arab boycott in return for the stopping of settlement activity.

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Palestinians remember how and where President Bush made it quite clear, not long ago, that “aggression can’t be rewarded.” Here, neither the stick nor the carrot was succeeding in ending flagrant Israeli aggression on Palestinian lands and rights. Maybe the reason was that here, the U.S. stick was no more than words, and the Arab carrot of ending the boycott was no longer necessary now that the Bush Administration wasn’t planning to link Israel’s $10-billion loan guarantee with the end of settlement activity.

There was other evidence of weak U.S. policy. More concessions were demanded of Palestinians. In compliance with Israeli wishes, the Palestine Liberation Organization was to be kept outside the negotiation process, even though the Americans and the Israelis knew that the Palestinians were still genuinely loyal to the PLO. The United States is now considering even more outrageous demands that would allow Israel to meddle in the naming of the Palestinian representatives. And there is more: Despite the universally held position--that is, held by the United Nations, including the United States--that East Jerusalem is part of the occupied territories, the Americans want the Palestinians to concede--in effect, to accept--Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, a position that the United States itself has never accepted. And if Palestinians don’t accept this, they are branded the rejectionists, while the Israelis who are setting these ridiculous preconditions will get off with little criticism.

For years, Palestinians wanted a peace process to begin that could radically change the existing status quo. But now that such a process seem more likely than ever, Palestinians are skeptical about the so-called Baker initiative’s chances for success. First, there has been a continuing U.S. unwillingness to pressure Israel, though the vigorous role of President Bush and Secretary Baker in recent weeks may signal a change for the better. Also, suspicion is running high that some Arab countries might end up selling out the Palestinian issue. The recent change in Syria’s policy upset many Palestinians because it was not coordinated with fellow Arab leaders. The PLO had repeatedly called for a meeting of the four Arab confrontation states and the PLO to coordinate policies, but that has failed. Instead, Syria has pushed ahead through its Lebanese proxies to strip the PLO of its last military position in South Lebanon.

The total sum of all this is that Palestinians have little negotiating power. They seem to have been left with only two cards: the justness of their cause, and the ability to reject participation. But playing a spoiler role is full of risk. Palestinians have paid a high price over the years for policies of rejection and are quite aware of the danger: You can only say no once, and if you don’t play that card right, it can backfire. So I hope that justice will prevail and Palestinians will be able to attend this important conference that may lead to peace.

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