After weeks of recrimination over stalled peace talks, the chief Palestinian negotiator said today he and his colleagues have built up an atmosphere of trust with Prime Minister Ehud Barak's new Israeli government. He predicted agreement within days on carrying out the long-delayed Wye River accord.
"The Israeli negotiators are serious," said Saeb Erekat, who is the top representative for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in negotiations with the Israelis. "These people want peace."
Israeli officials also characterized the talks as productive. After a late session tonight, Israel's main negotiator, Gilead Sher, said, "I believe we have built a relationship of mutual respect and trust."
The positive comments marked a clear departure from recent weeks, when the talks were stymied by deep distrust and personal animosity. In particular, Palestinian officials worried out loud that Barak was going back on his pledge to carry out the Wye River agreement on further troop withdrawals from the West Bank, which was reached last October at a resort near Washington after prolonged prodding by President Clinton and his senior Middle East aides.
"We have found there is suddenly an atmosphere of trust between the two sides," Erekat said in an interview in this West Bank town. "Now when Barak tells me something, I believe him. . . . Finally, we are talking in a way that is devoid of games, devoid of deceit."
Trust is something that had mostly evaporated during the three years Israel was led by Barak's predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. When Barak was elected to replace him in May, Palestinian officials went from immediate elation to cynicism, expressing doubt about his public commitment to carrying out the troop withdrawals, prisoner releases and other undertakings in the Wye River agreement.
First, Palestinians found Barak too slow to start talks. Then, when Barak said he wanted further delays in carrying out the agreement, they spoke darkly about the chances for a permanent peace sliding away.
"How does Barak expect us to believe he will carry out his future promises when he won't do what Israel has already promised?" asked Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a leading Palestinian academic, two weeks ago.
But it was in wrangling over implementing that October agreement, Erekat said, that he began to change his mind about Barak's commitment to honest dealings. He said today a timetable for carrying out the accord should be agreed to in time for a signing ceremony to coincide with a visit planned for the first week of September by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
"It really angers me when the Israelis are so difficult," Erekat said, his voice growing louder. "But then I tell myself they are difficult because they are cautious, and that's because they really mean to do what we agree on."
In the Wye agreement, Israel committed itself to pulling out of approximately 13 percent more West Bank land. That would put a total of about 40 percent under full or partial Palestinian control.
The withdrawal was to take place in three phases. Netanyahu completed the first and smallest of those. But last November he froze the process, charging the Palestinians with not living up to their commitments to fight terrorism, confiscate illegal weapons and reduce the size of their police forces.
Working in what both sides describe as a new atmosphere of confidence, Israeli negotiators have, in the past few days, agreed to carry out the second and third phases of the withdrawal. Talks are now about timing. The Palestinians want it finished by the end of year; Israel wants to wait until mid-February.
Negotiators on both sides say they also are optimistic about resolving another contentious issue, that of Palestinian prisoners due for release.
If the current negotiations are successful, Israel has recommitted itself to carrying out two other pending elements of the Wye agreement: permitting Palestinians to travel more freely between the Palestinian-run part of the Gaza Strip and Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and allowing construction to start on a harbor in Gaza.