Barak rift endangers peace process

THE Israeli-Palestinian peace process has run into the buffers. For the first time since Ehud Barak succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu a month ago, frustrated Palestinian negotiators are questioning whether the Labour Prime Minister is any more interested than his right-wing predecessor in a balanced compromise.

Yasser Arafat has rejected Mr Barak's call to revise the Wye memorandum, signed with Mr Netanyahu last October but never fully implemented. The Palestinians resent the new Prime Minister's attempt to write the script for them. They are unconvinced by his argument that completing the limited West Bank evacuation agreed at Wye would be dangerous for both sides and that to incorporate it into a final peace accord would be better.

Ziad Abu-Zayad, a minister in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, said yesterday: "There is a crisis. Until now there are no signals that Barak is willing to implement Wye. He says in public that he is committed to it and wants to implement it. But in direct contacts with us, he presents an image of Wye that doesn't fit with the word and substance of the agreement."

For Mr Abu-Zayad, who serves on an inner cabinet supervising the negotiations, it is a matter of mutual trust. "You have to respect and implement any signed agreement," he insisted. "Otherwise, there is no point in continuing to negotiate agreements."

The Palestinians have been further alarmed by an Israeli army announcement on Tuesday that most of the 31 satellite settlements planted on West Bank hilltops after Wye was signed, as well as 12 outposts established earlier in Mr Netanyahu's reign, will remain in place. "This is not what we expected from a government headed by the Labour Party," said Mr Abu-Zayad. "Such an approach calls in question Mr Barak's sincerity regarding a solution. We expected a change not only in the person, but in the policy, the approach and the understanding of the peace process."

The Clinton administration shares Palestinian misgivings. American diplomats are hinting that the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, may postpone a Middle East peace shuttle, scheduled to begin next week, until she sees progress.

Mr Barak, for his part, has accused the Palestinians of playing politics. His spokesman issued a statement expressing "dismay over the fact that the Palestinians have refrained from exploring ways to effect a more successful - for both parties - implementation of the Wye memorandum through its integration into the permanent settlement". He maintained that Israel had proposed genuine progress, "while the Palestinians have responded in a rigid fashion, ostensibly for internal reasons".

The Israeli media, which until now has given Mr Barak an easy ride, is joining his critics. Hemi Shalev commented in the tabloid daily Ma'ariv: "Barak acted towards the Palestinians too early, too harshly, too publicly and too much on his own. He asked for extensive credit without providing collateral. He asked for Arafat's blind trust, then immediately started to utter threats."

Akiva Eldar suggested in the liberal Ha'aretz that the ex-general, who spent most of his adult life fighting the Palestinians, still treated them as enemies. "Barak," he wrote, "like Netanyahu, does not believe that Arafat will make do with a small, disarmed state. For both of them, the starting point is that their primary obligation is to foil the Arab plot to leave Israel, when the time comes, without either territory or peace."

As if Mr Arafat were not bruised enough, Syria's veteran Defence Minister, Mustafa Tlas, denounced the Palestinian leader as "the son of 60,000 dogs and 60,000 whores, a black cat and a striptease dancer who drops one piece of clothing after another".

Mr Tlas later denied saying anything so vulgar, but the television cameras had caught it. A Palestinian spokesman, Tayeb Abu-Rahim, called on President Hafez Assad to dismiss him. Mr Arafat's Justice Minister, Freih Abu-Medein, responded in kind by accusing Mr Tlas of once trying to rape the female defence minister of Finland.

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