Israel today postponed the scheduled transfer of an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control, while its chief negotiator expressed doubt that the two sides will meet their Feb. 13 deadline for reaching accord on a broad framework for a final peace settlement.
Israeli negotiator Oded Eran said the issues dividing them may be too great to be solved by the deadline, particularly since Israel has focused its attention for the moment on peace talks with Syria. But the truth is, he said, "it would have been very hard to meet the deadline even without the negotiations with Syria."
The latest hitch in the stuttering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations underlined Palestinian fears that Prime Minister Ehud Barak would renege on Israeli commitments and thus further delay the so-called final status talks. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said his team had not been told that Israel considers meeting the deadline unlikely. "This is a surprise to us," he said. "This will not advance the peace process."
Erekat said that missing the February date seriously threatens a September deadline for completing all negotiations. "Since Israel is now concentrating on Syria, does this mean that the Israeli representatives will no longer have a real mandate to negotiate with us?" he asked. "Are we now going to have meetings for the sake of having meetings?"
Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed last fall that they would conclude by Feb. 13 a comprehensive agreement on all issues not thus far settled between them--including final borders; water rights; the status of Palestinian refugees, and of Jewish settlers in the West Bank; and, perhaps most intractable, the political status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
Barak insisted on the February deadline, saying it was essential to detail outstanding issues with the Palestinians and agree on how they would be resolved if Israel were to maintain its momentum toward settling disputes with all its Arab neighbors. But some analysts said Barak may now find it difficult to make politically painful concessions to the Palestinians while political opposition is building to any agreement with Syria that includes giving up the strategically important Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Some Palestinian leaders have asserted that the talks with Israel have been fruitless thus far and that there has been no consensus on any of the issues. "The gap between the sides is very wide, in such a way that there is nothing that can be written on paper," Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia told reporters.
Washington will become the center of the controversy this week as Barak and Arafat consult there with President Clinton, while Barak also is scheduled to resume negotiations in Shepherdstown, W. Va., on Wednesday with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa.
Palestinian officials reacted strongly today when Barak announced a procedural delay in making Thursday's scheduled handover of West Bank territory--one of a series of partial land transfers negotiated by the two sides while discussions continue on the larger issues. Even with such delays, however, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are still talking, and for the moment at least, relations between them appear calm.
The reasons for that may be found on the Palestinian side. Arafat just scored a diplomatic coup in hosting banner Christmas celebrations in the biblical city of Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian control. In one event, he played host not only to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and a half-dozen other East European leaders, but also to an unprecedented gathering of patriarchs of eastern Christian churches.
"Arafat is a man who stands up straighter and feels better when the world is looking at him; he thinks the attention helps his cause," said a Western diplomat. "When he goes to Washington next week, he expects Clinton will receive him well and tell him not to worry."
In addition, analysts said, Arafat was never fond of the idea of reaching a framework agreement by Feb. 13, seeing it as just another in a series of vague interim deals designed to postpone tough decisions on the real issues. They said he went along with it only after Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright asked him to.
For Barak, missing a deadline he defined as important may not upset the overall peace process, since his government is concentrating for now on Syria. And some say that reaching agreement with Damascus could be quicker and simpler than settling all the intricacies of relations with the Palestinians.