Hurdles block way to final peace

Once the Hebron redeployment is out of the way, Israel and the Palestinians will present competing shopping lists for continuing the shambling Oslo peace process.

The negotiations promise to be as slow, as grudging and as volatile as those over Hebron - the City of the Patriarchs - which dragged on for nine months beyond the March redeployment deadline.

An Israeli political science professor, Yaron Ezrahi, has dubbed Oslo a "peace of attrition". Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat seem bent on proving him right.

Each leader is determined to extract the maximum advantage for the lowest price. Each is looking over his shoulder at a sceptical constituency that needs to be convinced that he is not selling out. Since Mr Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing and religious parties came to power last June, there has been little of the goodwill, or the enthusiasm, that carried the previous Labour government through recurrent crises.

At the top of the Palestinian agenda is a further Israeli redeployment from rural areas on the West Bank which remained under Israel's military supervision after the two previous withdrawals. This evacuation ought to have started in September 1996, but in practice nothing moved.

The "Oslo II" agreement, exactly one year earlier, established the principle of further withdrawals, but left the details to be negotiated. Mr Arafat has tried to link the Hebron deal to a timetable for the West Bank villages. The next few weeks will prove whether he succeeded.

The Palestinians are also clamouring for the release of about 6,000 Arab security prisoners, including a handful of women, still in Israeli jails. Mr Netanyahu has undertaken gradually to free all those who have not murdered Israelis.

The Palestinians want Israel to fulfil its pledge to open a "safe passage" route for Palestinian traffic between the autonomous regions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The black-and-white signs have been in place for two years, but the Israelis have not worked out how to allow vehicles to flow without enabling suicide bombers to get into Israel. Lower down the list, the Palestinians want to operate an airport in the Gaza strip. Up to now, Israel has stood by its right under the Oslo accords to control the Palestinian borders. If the airport is to open, Israel will need to be sure it does not serve as an arms gateway. Similar reservations apply to a new port the Palestinians want to build in Gaza.

On their side, the Israelis are insisting that Mr Arafat extradite Palestinian gunmen who attack Israelis and shelter under the Palestinian flag in Jericho or Gaza. Palestinian spokesmen maintain that Oslo allows them to arrest and try the offenders themselves, which they have done.

Mr Netanyahu is still pressing Mr Arafat to repudiate the clauses in the 1964 Palestinian National Covenant which call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The PLO leader has said since 1993 that the clauses were null and void, but the Israeli right is not satisfied.

More tangibly, Israel is demanding that the Palestinian Authority disarm the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front militias, which persist in waging the old "armed struggle" from within Palestinian territory.

And after that, the two sides can get down to negotiating the "final status" of Jerusalem and the 127 West Bank and Gaza Jewish settlements; compensation for the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars and Palestinian sovereignty.

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