The Palestine Liberation Organization on Thursday rejected as inadequate the series of compromises worked out by Israeli and PLO negotiators in Cairo this week to launch the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the path to self-government.
But senior Israeli officials said that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is simply seeking further concessions and warned that mounting political pressures on the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin make those impossible.
After a major negotiating effort to break the prolonged impasse, both sides appeared resigned Thursday to more talks on the major issues and the mass of complex practical questions that must be resolved to implement the September agreement on Palestinian autonomy.
“Arafat did not accept the Israeli proposals as they were presented to the Palestinians during the talks,” said Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli-Arab physician who advises Arafat. “The ideas put together in the working paper do not resolve the problems for the Palestinians. They simply are not enough, they fall short, they are insufficient. And so the negotiations will have to continue.”
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warned, however, that the whole timetable for Israeli military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area in the West Bank, and for Palestinian assumption of governmental authority, is in danger of slipping if the current deadlock is not quickly broken.
“We are in this, and we will continue,” a senior Israeli official said. “A crisis was prevented, I believe, and we have now the possibility to take important steps ahead. But we must resolve to take them, however short and faltering they may be. We must move forward.”
There was a new element, however, in mutual recriminations and charges of bad faith resulting from the collapse of the understandings reached in late-night talks in Cairo on Tuesday.
Israeli officials suggested that Arafat was reneging on an agreement reached by his top negotiators, Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, with Peres and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid.
“There is a French saying that the enemy of ‘the good’ is ‘the better,’ ” one Israeli official said acidly, “and here I would add that the enemy of ‘enough’ is ‘more.’ ”
PLO officials asserted with equal bitterness that there had never been an agreement and that the Israelis were misrepresenting their own proposals as having been accepted in order to pressure the Palestinians into agreeing to much less than they will need politically to sell the package.
“There was not an agreement,” a member of the PLO negotiating team declared in Cairo. “It was some ideas that a working group had put on paper--only guidelines. The Palestinian side told the Israeli side we were going to return to our leadership to get their ideas. The Israeli side was dishonest when they published this.”
The PLO officials sharply criticized Peres’ characterization of the Cairo talks Wednesday as “a meeting of the minds.”
“What Peres said is a complete exaggeration,” Abed-Rabbo said. “It is an attempt to bluff. Such kinds of games in the negotiations might kill the present form of the talks.”
The Israeli anger also reflected a sense of betrayal.
“They locked in our maximum offer as their minimum price, and now they are going for more,” an Israeli negotiator said. “The Palestinians can’t do a deal and then say, ‘No, not enough, reopen it.’ We can’t negotiate that way.”
Arafat conferred in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa on ways out of the impasse, but he left without responding officially to the proposals.
The PLO issued a statement rejecting the negotiators’ working paper, but Arafat canceled a planned press conference.
Rabin, who was ready Wednesday to accept the package, stolidly maintained his silence, awaiting Arafat’s reply.
Egypt, which had mediated the negotiations and supported the compromises in the working paper, is trying to save the situation, making changes in the draft statement and suggesting new ideas.
Moussa is likely to visit Jerusalem in the next two or three days in a further effort at mediation, then bring top Israeli and PLO negotiators together in Cairo again next week.
Four major issues have been under discussion--security along the frontiers with Jordan and Egypt, control of the border crossings into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the size of the Jericho autonomous region and protection for Jewish settlers in Gaza.
Tentative agreements were reportedly reached on all four points in the Cairo talks, and the Israeli newspapers Thursday were filled with details of the compromises, right down to the design of the border control points and maps of the Jericho district.
As the tentative agreement unraveled, the Palestinians proposed what one PLO official called “critical changes” in the two delegations’ joint statement, with further changes likely later from Arafat himself, probably on control of the border crossings and the size of Jericho.
The Palestinians hope to return in the next few days to negotiations between small delegations from each side on the remaining points, either in Cairo or in the Red Sea resort of Taba, a PLO official said, expressing his optimism that a final accord can be forged soon.
“We will do this--we don’t have any choice,” he said.
For Rabin, the difficulties are twofold, according to Israeli officials.
He has real security concerns on all four issues, they said, and he cannot transgress the scope of the agreement he originally outlined to Israel’s Parliament when he won its endorsement of the basic agreement on Palestinian autonomy.
Israel had, in its view, already made notable concessions, doubling the area it initially envisioned for the Jericho district and developing an elaborate system to give Palestinians a major role at the entry points into Jericho and Gaza.
There had been further concessions, Israeli officials said, to allow Palestinian farmers to reclaim plots near Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and to free unused land there for agriculture.
“We feel that we have given where we could, compromised where we could and held fast where we must,” an Israeli negotiator said. “But once a deal is done, I don’t see how we can go back and renegotiate it all--everything comes unstuck then.”
The collapse of the understandings worked out earlier in the week indeed seemed likely to remain a bitter lesson for both sides.
According to both Israeli and Palestinian participants, the full delegations had met with Egyptian mediators late into the night Tuesday and reached their tentative agreements, then appointed a smaller number of representatives to refine the proposals into a formal statement.
“It was done very late at night, very crudely and in a large group,” a PLO official explained.
When the edited proposals were reviewed in the morning, a “difference of opinion” emerged, he said.
PLO officials contend that Israelis managed to substitute their language for what was agreed upon; Israelis suggest that the Palestinians in the working group lacked the authority to engage in such negotiations.
From Cairo, there were Palestinian suggestions that Arafat might now insist on negotiating directly with Rabin; in Jerusalem, Israeli officials questioned the reliability of Abbas and Abed-Rabbo and raised the broader issue of the PLO’s incessant infighting undercutting almost any agreement.
Nabil Shaath, a key PLO negotiator, said Thursday evening that Israeli and Palestinian delegations have agreed to meet almost nonstop for the next two weeks in Taba, working largely on about 120 pages of Israeli proposals governing the complexities of limited Palestinian self-rule.