From all sides, Mid-East peace deal is doomed
By Phil Reeves
Jerusalem - All chance of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future is vanishing, destroyed by hardening opinions on both sides, continuing violence, the precarious position of the political leaders involved, and disagreements over key issues.
Although there were suggestions on Thursday of another round of talks before Bill Clinton leaves the White House in a fortnight, the prospects of their success are non-existent.
Meeting in Cairo, the Arab League on Thursday added its weight to a chorus of Palestinian voices which say that the latest US peace proposals are seriously inadequate.
Aides to Yasser Arafat, who returned to Gaza on Thursday after sounding out the Arab foreign ministers, have indicated that he has accepted the plan as a basis for talks, but he appears to have done so with so many reservations that it amounts to rejection.
This is, however, but the tip of an iceberg. There is no sign among the Palestinians of any desire to end the intifada. After seeing Israeli forces kill nearly 300 people, assassinate guerrilla leaders (real and imagined), blockade Arab towns and villages, place tens of thousands under curfew, raze hundreds of acres of olive and orange groves, and demolish homes - 10 on Thurday in the Gaza Strip alone - the popular appetite for making any significant concessions to Israel is even smaller than before.
This has increased the risk of a backlash against his leadership, if Arafat attempts to make a deal which abandons the central Palestinian national claims. Leaders of militia groups - from Fatah, which he nominally controls, to the Islamic radicals of Hamas - dismiss as simplistic nonsense the widely-held notion that he speaks on their behalf.
They have repeatedly stated that the uprising will continue, no matter what postures are struck by the Palestinian leadership which - at least until the intifada began - was widely criticised on the Palestinian street for ineptitude, human rights abuses, ties with the CIA, and an overly compliant approach to Israel.
With a prime ministerial election looming in Israel, serious negotiations would be extremely difficult, especially while Jewish lives are being lost in ambushes and bombings. The Palestinians are wary of dealing with Ehud Barak, knowing that he could be thrown out of office next month and that any offers he makes could be rejected by an increasingly right-wing Israeli electorate.
Their suspicions are growing that, in the dying days of his term, Bill Clinton is trying to persuade Arafat to lock into a framework agreement which would then become the blueprint for the Bush administration - ensuring that, while the US officials change, the policies do not.
They also believe a US effort is under way to save a drowning Barak, and avert a victory for Ariel Sharon, by bamboozling them into making a deal.
To all this should be added major disagreements over the key issues, which still persist. These have surfaced anew in an intriguing document by the Palestinian negotiating team, which gives their perspective on the latest US peace proposals. The Clinton plan - say the negotiators - allows for Israel to annex between four and six percent of the West Bank, so that 80 percent of the 195 000 Jewish settlers will live within annexed blocs. The Palestinian state would be compensated with an undefined land swap of between one and three percent.
But the negotiators say these percentage calculations - tirelessly brandished by Israel to support its claim that it is willing to give back 95 percent of the West Bank - exclude Jerusalem, part of the Dead Sea, and a no-man's land zone. They say the plan would provide Israel with control over large swathes of land rendering the Palestinian state unviable by splitting it into cantons.
Their assessment of Clinton's proposals for Jerusalem are no less fundamental. They say these would result "in Palestinian islands within the city separated from one another", while Israeli areas are contiguous, and fail to solve problems of conflicting sovereignty claims over the Old City's sacred Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
On the right of return of millions of refugees - described as "sacred" by the Arab League on Thursday, echoing views held in refugee camps across the Middle East - the negotiators criticises the Clinton proposal for "adopting wholesale" the Israeli position.
The US plan proposes five final homes for the refugees - a Palestinian state, areas in Israel transferred to Palestine in a land swap, staying in the countries (such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) where they now live, and admission to Israel - although, crucially, this would be up to Israel's discretion.
"Recognition of the right of return and the provision of choice to refugees is a prerequiste for the closure of the conflict", said the negotiators. The right of return is rejected by Israelis across the political spectrum, even by the peace camp. With differences such as these, it will be a long time before calm settles on the Middle East.