Deadline nears for Rabin's autonomy plan: Hopes for a swift deal between Israel and the Palestinians have receded, Sarah Helm writes from Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
YITZHAK RABIN, Israel's Labour Prime Minister, elected in June, has had a good honeymoon so far. But he is running out of time to achieve his main election pledge: Palestinian autonomy within nine months.

It always looked ambitious. Now, as a seventh round of peace talks began in Washington yesterday, it looks almost fanciful. Without progress on this front Mr Rabin's credibility, at home and abroad, could be damaged. His coalition is not secure, the West Bank and Gaza are becoming impatient, with a marked increase in violent protest, settlers are flexing their muscles, and the world is starting to expect some results. Where did he go wrong?

During the campaign, Mr Rabin promised Palestinian autonomy first, saying peace with the rest - particularly the Syrians - could wait. He believed that a 'comprehensive peace' with all enemies at once would allow each Arab state to up the ante of the other, and he was against asking the Knesset to agree too many concessions at once.

But his policy switched when, in July and August, Syria suddenly started playing a new hand, showing it wanted to talk about peace. Nobody expected President Hafez al-Assad, whose public rhetoric had remained doggedly unchanged, to switch like this.

In retrospect, the Israeli response looks unguarded. It was almost euphoric, as if the future of the Golan Heights was to be settled tomorrow. Mr Rabin changed priorities, focusing on a Syrian deal, calculating that it might come quicker and easier than Palestinian autonomy.

The scenario must have looked tempting: a deal with Syria, leading to an end of the Arab trade boycott; lots of domestic accolades and more US bounty, with the Syrian peace treaty dragging Palestinian autonomy in its wake.

The high hopes blazoned in the Israeli press during the summer indicated a desire by Mr Rabin to capitalise on the Syrian gesture, and start preparing Israeli public opinion for the inevitable compromises a deal would involve.

Two months later, however, these hopes look premature. There is no firm sign that Mr Assad will do a deal without agreement on the Palestinian front too. He has prepared the ground for negotiation, but signalled it will be long and hard.

So the scenario switches back again to the West Bank and Gaza, and suddenly things look less rosy for Mr Rabin. Flirting with Damascus may even have damaged progress on autonomy, undermining confidence in his earlier pledges and fuelling unrest, including the recent hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.

There is little sign that progress with Syria would put pressure on Palestinians to compromise sooner for fear of being left behind. The Damascus gesture has just deepened Palestinian distrust of Syria.

If the talks continue to flounder, Israel's right-wing opposition is certain to take advantage. And Mr Rabin's left-wing coalition partner, Meretz, where rumblings of discontent can already be heard, will be questioning the value of their new partnership. The US election rules out any American impetus for some time.

Some Israeli commentators are questioning not only the political wisdom, but the strategic wisdom, of playing up a Syrian deal at the expense of the Palestinians. While Syria is, in military terms, Israel's greatest enemy, the real challenge is to achieve autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

'It is presented as if Syria is about military conflict, while the Palestinian question is just debate about an existential piece of land,' says Joseph Alpher of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. 'But settling the Palestinian question is far more important for Israel's strategic well-being in the long run. Without a solution to the Palestinian question it could be the end of the Zionist dream. Israel would have to absorb 1.7 million Palestinians either by annexing it or ruling over it.'

As ordinary Israelis point out, it is also in the West Bank and Gaza that Israeli soldiers are killed. It was this, in part, that persuaded so many to vote for Mr Rabin's peace platform. If he misses his deadline for autonomy, his voters will want to know why.