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September 25, 1992 - Image 35

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-09-25

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Getting Past Square One

Why Palestinians and Israelis seem to talking a
different negotiating language at the peace talks.


Israel Correspondent


any expectations
about the Israeli-
Arab peace process
have been reversed in the
past few weeks. All the
uproar in the last week or
two over reaching a quick
settlement with Syria ob-
scured the issue that was
originally slated to be the
"main event" of the Wash-
ington talks: Advancing
toward an agreement on Pa-
lestinian autonomy. Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin was
convinced that such an
agreement could be conclud-
ed within six to nine months.
After all, as most Israelis
tended to see it, the basic
structure of the autonomy
regime was already in place
in the form of the Civil Ad-
ministration in the ter-
ritories. All that remained,
really, was to work out the
details of transferring
responsibility from Israeli to
Palestinian hands
It was a neat little plan.
The problem is that the Pa-
lestinians haven't gone
along with it. Instead, before
tackling the details of taxa-
tion, education, and the like,
they've insisted on clarify-
ing the "big picture" for the
territories — various
matters of principle that
Israelis prefer to postpone to
the next stage of talks, on
the final status of the ter-
ritories, some years down
the road.
Take, for example, the
nagging question of the
autonomy council's "source
of authority." As an
autonomous but not in-
dependent entity, to whom
would the Palestinian self-
governing authority be ac-
countable? To its consti-
tuents, as one would expect
of a democratically elected
institution? Or to Israeli
military government, which
p (under international law) is
formally the administrative,
legislative, and judicial au-
thority in territories?
This is not some abstract
legal question. For Palestin-
ians, it strikes at the heart of
the matter. Since the
earliest days of Israeli rule,
they have warded off all at-
tempts to turn them into
"agents of the occupation."
Between 1967 and 1977,
recalled Ha'aretz commen-
tator Danny Rubenstein,


Labor governments "tried to
sell leaders in the territories
the idea of choosing their
own officials to head an Arab
civil administration. But Pa-
lestinians repeatedly re-
jected the idea on the
grounds that they had no in-
terest in making the job of
ruling the West Bank and
Gaza any easier for the
Against this background,
it is easier to understand
why Israeli exhortations to
get down to brass tacks of an
autonomy agreement
sounds, to Palestinians, as
little more than an old tune
played on a new instrument.
The more chief Israeli
negotiator Eliyakim Rubins-
tein implores them to stop
wasting time on what he
calls "symbolic" matters
(from clarifying the status of
Jerusalem to discussing the
control of state lands, water
sources, and halting all fur-
ther Israeli settlements), the
more the Palestinians feel

The more Israel's
chief negotiator
asks Palestinians
to stop wasting
time on "symbolic"
matters, tte more
they feel they're
being maneuvered
into doing the dirty
work of the

that they're being maneu-
vered into doing the dirty
work of the occupation with
no guarantees they will ever
get beyond that stage.
Yet another reason for
their mistrust of Israeli —
and American —intentions
is that they've already been
maneuvered into something
of a psychological corner.
Even the most casual stu-
dent of the art of compromise
knows that any successful
negotiation must begin with
the premise that both sides
have something to offer and
end with the feeling that
both have gained from the
bargain. Yet from the
earliest the days of the mis-
sion of former secretary of
state James Baker, the Pa-
lestinians have been cast in
the role of supplicants who
have little to offer, every-
thing to gain, and should be

happy with whatever they
Since then, the "beggars-
can't-be-choosers" line has
been augmented by the last-
chance scare ("Who knows
when the bus will come by
again?"), intimations of in-
competence (in getting their
position papers together),
and rumors of paralyzing
rivalries within the Pales-
tinian delegation, to say
nothing of reports that the
PLO is all but gagging the
negotiators for fear of being
upstaged by them.
There's undoubtedly a
grain (or more) of truth in
these insinuations. And,
anyway, the Palestinians
have no delusions about be-
ing on an equal political
footing with their Israeli
interlocutors. Still, when
one thinks of how often in
past weeks we've heard the
old saw that "the Palestin-
ians have never missed an
opportunity to miss an op-
portunity," it's hard not to
suspect that something
other than well-meaning ad-
vice is being dispensed here.
The curious thing about
this reading of the Palestin-
ian position is that it derives
not from the grumblings of
Arab apologists, but from
the writings of seasoned
Israeli observers. Indeed,
these experts have tended to
confirm the Palestinian
plaint that the autonomy
idea being offered by the
Rabin government is much
the same as that proposed by
the Likud.4
Moreover, noted historian
Meron Benvenisti, the Rabin
government has refused to
even hint what will follow
after the "transition
Thus, when Palestinian
negotiators insist on talking
about applying Resolution
242 to the West Bank and
Gaza, they're obviously rais-
ing a question that the
Israeli government finds in-
convenient to address. It's a
question on which Israel is
so deeply divided that it
could even bring down the
But from the Palestinian
standpoint, 242 is hardly an
illogical or illegitimate
issue. Despite all the advice
to "seize the day," they have
every reason to ask what
Israel's intentions are — if
only because answering
those questions will be such

At the peace talks: Palestinians have been cast as having little to offer
and everything to gain.

a painful process that
Israelis may want to avoid it
So for those who are
wondering why the Palestin-
ians have spurned every
plea to sit down and talk
business in Washington, the
answer is that they already
are: They're just not
necessarily saying what
Israelis want to hear. And
the fact is that they have al-
ready made some gains from
their persistence. Israel has
conceded, for example, that

the Palestinian ad-
ministrative council will be
accountable to its consti-
tuents, and it has agreed to
discuss joint control of state
lands and water sources.
While these concessions
have not rocked the founda-
tions of the Israeli govern-
ment, they may well make
autonomy a more reasonable
(and marketable) option for
the Palestinians. And, after
all, striking that balance is
what these negotiations are
essentially about. ❑

Israel's Back Door
Talks with Arafat


Israel Correspondent

Faisal Husseini, the
unofficial head of the Pa-
lestinian delegation to the
Israeli-Arab peace talks,
was in Cairo with Yassir
Arafat as the negotiations
with Israel resumed last
week in Washington.
Hanan Ashrawi, spokes-
woman for the delegation,
had been in Amman with
Mr. Arafat during the
Labor Day break from the
These were just two
more reminders of what
the Rabin administration,
like the Shamir ad-
ministration before it,
will not admit, but which
has been true since the
peace talks began nearly
a year ago in Madrid:
Israel is indirectly nego-
tiating with the PLO.
"Yes, absolutely, this
has been so since the
beginning," said Sari
Nusseibeh, a member of
the Palestinian delega-
tion's advisory committee
and head of the Palestin-
ian "technical com-
mittees" that are laying
the groundwork for
autonomy in the West
Bank and Gaza.

"The leadership of the
Palestinian people is the
PLO," he said, "and the
leadership makes the
ultimate decisions, then
the negotiating team bas-
ically sticks to those
guidelines. People assoc-
iated with the PLO are
always in the background
at the negotiations, and
there is constant interac-
tion (between them and
the Palestinian dele-
Delegates sitting across
from Israelis at the nego-
tiating table are not card-
carrying PLO members.
But even before Madrid,
delegate Saeeb Erekat
announced that he and
his colleagues would rep-
resent the PLO. Mr.
Arafat's rule over the
delegation couldn't have
been clearer than when
he was seen on television
several months ago em-_
bracing Haider Abdel
Shafi, the official head of
the Palestinian delega-
tion to the talks.
Mr. Arafat's chief envoy
at the negotiation sites is
his political adviser,
Nabil Sha'ath. Sha'ath
carries his boss's orders to
the delegation, usually
through Husseini or

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