The basic plan for peace seemed simple enough. Palestinians and Israelis would cease 45 years of hostilities and Palestinians would begin governing themselves in lands occupied by Israel since 1967.
Israeli troops would withdraw initially from a small portion of those lands, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho--an experiment in complete autonomy that could pave the way for a full peace in the years ahead. The Palestinians would begin establishing their own government, their own police force, their own hospitals and their own economy.
But the plan, as might have been expected, appeared simpler than it was.
As detailed implementation talks began a month after the signing of the initial peace accord at the White House in September, troop “withdrawal” quickly began to look in Palestinian eyes like troop “redeployment.” Questions arose over who would control the borders of a new autonomous Palestine. Disputes broke out even over fundamental issues such as where the new Palestinian Jericho would be--the city itself, about 10 square miles? Or the roughly 140-square-mile historic province of Jericho?
During seven rounds of talks aimed at finalizing an agreement before a Dec. 13 deadline for the first Israeli withdrawal, Palestinians and Israelis have found themselves bedeviled in the details.
“There is little time left,” chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath warned as talks wound up last week in Cairo, and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat sought Egyptian intervention to break the deadlock.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, meanwhile, further unsettled the Palestinian camp when he cautioned that the mid-December target date for concluding an agreement, considered crucial to the Palestinians, should not be viewed as a “holy date.”
“It is better to budget more time and to know that we have finished something over which there are no misunderstandings, or varying interpretations,” he said.
Privately, both Israelis and Palestinians say they will likely make the concessions needed to make an agreement possible, if not by Dec. 13, then within a few days of the target. They will reach an agreement, they say--even a less-than-optimal agreement--because the alternative is worse.
“Both leaderships want to get this done,” said a diplomat close to the talks in Cairo, where the negotiations have unfolded in secrecy over the last several weeks. It was decisions by Rabin and Arafat that accounted for the breakthrough achieved in secret talks in Oslo, the diplomat noted, “and as long as these two continue to have the will, which they do, then it will get done.”
The guarded public statements about fundamental differences, say analysts close to the talks, have shrouded the important progress in substance and in confidence-building that has characterized the Israeli-Palestinian discussions since they moved to the secrecy of a private government guest house in Cairo.
From an initial battery of 40 negotiators, the team has shrunk to about five members on each side--with additional consultants as needed--discussing the most vital issues of security and withdrawal. Additional teams have repaired to the Mediterranean Sea resort of El Arish, on the Sinai Peninsula, to discuss the transfer of civilian government authority, and to Paris, to debate economic issues such as banking, commerce, the employment of 50,000 Palestinians in Israel and what kind of currency the Palestinians will use.
Contacts have become increasingly relaxed, particularly between the Cairo delegation chiefs, Palestinian businessman Shaath and Israeli Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak. The two have met privately for dinner in Cairo restaurants and have occasionally adopted a “walk in the woods” approach.
“The Palestinians have shown a readiness to respond to Israeli security needs on issues like recognizing the need for Israelis to provide protection for Jewish settlers. And this has led the Israelis to withdraw from using the whole idea of security as a negotiating tool, and to instead put forth what are their genuine security needs,” said one source familiar with the talks.
The negotiations seemed doomed shortly after they opened Oct. 13 in Taba, the Sinai resort that was returned to Egypt only in 1989 as part of its peace treaty with Israel. Negotiators emerging from the conference rooms would run a gantlet of television cameras and make gloomy predictions for the evening news that were often tossed back at them in the next day’s talks.
During these opening days, Israel took a step toward meeting the Palestinians’ demand for release of about 9,500 prisoners in Israeli jails, announcing that it would release an initial 760 detainees. But the pledge was undercut when two Israeli soldiers were killed by Islamic militants in Gaza. Israel held back on the release of more than 100 prisoners, most of them members of the Islamic militant organization Hamas. And Arafat saw his credibility with Hamas, which has opposed the PLO peace accord, rapidly withering.
But it was the issue of Israeli troop withdrawal in the Gaza Strip that prompted Shaath to walk out of the talks barely two weeks after their opening sessions. The Israelis, citing provisions in the peace accord that allowed their forces to continue to protect Jewish settlers in Gaza, insisted on controlling not only the settlements but also the areas between the settlements--in the end, a large portion of Gaza. The Palestinians said this amounted not to withdrawal but merely redeployment--and walked out.
Israeli sources say they believe that Shaath’s walkout was really a ploy by Arafat to get the United States more heavily involved in twisting arms, though the United States has not sat in on any of the talks.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa flew Nov. 4 to Israel, where the Egyptians had a frank message for the Israelis. In Cairo’s view, the proposals the Israelis were putting forward implied a “maximalist” approach to security that could not sustain the talks. Why not be more realistic, Moussa suggested.
The Israelis countered that they were prepared to be realistic--they had simply presented an opening position, to which the Palestinians could respond. But the Palestinians, Moussa argued, did not come to the talks prepared to make a host of bargaining concessions. They didn’t have any to make. The Israelis, as occupiers of the land, would have to make the majority of the concessions. The Palestinians were prepared to meet Israel’s legitimate security concerns, Moussa said. What were they?
The talks resumed, this time in secret, in a whole new atmosphere. Israel agreed to unlimited Palestinian fishing access in waters 20 miles offshore of Gaza and, instead of direct Israeli border control between Gaza and Israel, a 100-meter-wide demilitarized zone that would be patrolled by the Palestinians on one side and the Israelis on the other.
The Israelis had wanted control of three major roads in Gaza, but later agreed that they would not set up checkpoints along the roads as long as they could maintain common patrols along the roadways.
Last week, the Israelis took a step toward meeting the Palestinians’ demands to discuss the issue of releasing more prisoners--a subject the Israelis previously had said would be off the table until there was marked progress in other areas of negotiations. But the two sides remained at a standoff because the Palestinians insisted on a precise timetable for their release, not just an agreement to discuss it.
Privately, Israeli sources indicate that a deal may be possible. Israel, they say, is probably prepared to release all but about 700 of the prisoners characterized as “hard terrorists” who have been responsible for Israeli bloodshed.
As of the close of last week’s seventh round of talks, these, in addition to the prisoner debate, were the serious issues that still divided the two sides:
* The size of Jericho. The issue is critical, since it determines not only the size of the Palestinians’ fledgling new empire but also its links to international border crossings with Jordan. Israel initially proposed only the 10 square miles of Jericho proper, then added the surrounding Palestinian refugee camps for a total of 20 square miles. Palestinians opened with the original Ottoman Empire-era boundaries of Jericho province of nearly 140 square miles and fell back to about 105 square miles--still a major gap.
* Control of border crossings. These include two entry points to Gaza from Egypt at the town of Rafah, as well as three crossings from Jordan to the West Bank, the most active of which is the Allenby Bridge. Israel says it wants control of the Jordan border but will allow Palestinians to participate. The Palestinians want arrangements the other way around.
As renewed violence in the Gaza Strip broke out over the killing of a Hamas activist by Israeli soldiers, negotiators in Cairo went back home for consultations, and Arafat telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
“Both of us expressed the hope that we shall try to meet (the Dec. 13 deadline),” Peres told reporters. “I am confident that in spite of all the agonies and problems, we shall go ahead and make the deadline.”