NEWS ANALYSIS : Numbing Attention to Detail Behind Stymied Progress on Israel-PLO Pact


When Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed their historic agreement for Palestinian self-rule last September, it envisioned a full accord to implement the plan by Dec. 13. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat started checking real estate, announcing he would move his household goods into the West Bank in January. Israel's last troops were to pull out of Jericho and the Gaza Strip by what then seemed a distant April deadline.

It came and went Wednesday without the signing of a final accord or the hoped-for withdrawal of Israeli soldiers. An agreement is still at least weeks away, both sides agree. And Arafat, who hasn't moved his headquarters from Tunis, Tunisia, is left fretting.

What went wrong? Whose fault was it?

As negotiators wind up six months of talks without an agreement on Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and Jericho, both sides are looking uneasily to what lies ahead for peace in the Middle East: If Jericho is this hard, what will happen when the discussions move to Jerusalem? If negotiators can't agree on zoning in the Gaza Strip, what will they do about Jewish settlers in the West Bank?

From the promising beginning of a handshake on the White House lawn, the Middle East peace negotiations have turned into a nightmare of detailed, point-by-point arguments that have stretched into the wee hours and made the talks last for weeks and weeks. Their numbing complexity and sludge-like progress--even as violence erupts daily and blood continues to spill in the occupied territories--point up, say those closest to the talks, the unprecedented nature of the negotiations and the fact that their outcome, for both sides, is a matter of political survival.

The story of how delegates took months to negotiate international border crossings into Gaza and Jericho from Egypt and Jordan shows the excruciating detail that has stymied progress on a final Israel-PLO agreement.

Israel from the beginning said it should retain total control of international borders. The PLO said Palestinians should not have to go through Israeli border guards to get into their new autonomous areas.

What about terrorists sneaking in? Israel asked. Let Israeli guards watch a video monitor or stand behind a glass window, the Palestinians countered. Then came the debate: What color should the glass be?

"They spent a long time on that one," said one diplomat ruefully. "Then toilets were mentioned. Whether there would be separate bathrooms."

Both sides tend to blame each other for the delays.

Yet with all the blood that has been shed in Israel and the occupied territories since the talks began--including the Feb. 25 massacre of about 30 Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque and Wednesday's bomb attack on a bus in northern Israel that killed five Israelis, the second such incident in a week--it is, perhaps, remarkable that the talks, scheduled to resume on Sunday, continue at all.

Political analysts now say it was unrealistic to expect that such a mind-boggling array of detail could be resolved in the few months envisioned in the September Declaration of Principles. The negotiations themselves are unprecedented, involving not state-to-state negotiations over a clearly defined piece of occupied territory--as in Israel's talks with Egypt and now Syria--or even the South African example of new rights for a distinct population within the borders of a single state.

"It took us two years to negotiate with the Israelis, and there were no gray areas," said an Egyptian official of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. "These negotiations are much more difficult because they really have to resolve fundamental insecurities on both sides."

In recent interviews, negotiators and diplomats following the talks said the fundamental stumbling block has been the different perceptions that Israel and the Palestinians took to the bargaining table from the outset: The PLO saw Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho as a steppingstone to an independent Palestinian state. Israel did not, and has insisted, in the name of security, on maintaining a measure of control over virtually every facet of Palestinian life.

The result has been continual head-butting--and not only on major security issues like the size of the Palestinian police force or of the Jericho area that would come under Palestinian self-rule.

At one point, the talks exploded on the issue of refrigerators. Seeking to work out a customs agreement, Israel wanted to impose quality control restrictions to prevent cheap refrigerators from flooding into Gaza and Jericho and making their way into the Israeli market. Palestinians said their citizens couldn't always afford nice refrigerators and that their government should be able to decide what is imported.

Water is also in dispute, primarily because of a wellhead owned by a Jewish settlement in Jericho. That gave rise to all sorts of questions: Will the new Palestinian authority have control of the well? Can the Palestinians cut off the water? What authority collects the fees?

The difficulties are even more acute because the delegations sometimes can't even agree among themselves; they spend hours formulating negotiating positions before launching talks with the other side. Talks have been further set back when the delegations have reached an accord, only to see either Arafat or Rabin nix it when it was put in writing.

At one point, the tentative agreement spanned 150 pages of details. Since then, the two sides have cut it down considerably and drawn up annexes.

Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the delays have been due primarily to Israeli "overprotectiveness" on security issues related to Jewish settlements and any sign of Palestinian sovereignty.

"The issues really have to do with our insistence on what we consider the minimum rules of self-government," he said. ". . . They can put it the other way around by saying we are stonewalling. . . . But to us these are minimum demands that, if they don't respond to, we will not be able to make any sort of proper government."

Israel has from the beginning emphasized that it is more important to reach a good agreement as opposed to a speedy one.

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