Middle East talks keep to the old script

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'IT'S LIKE any soap opera. After a few days you realise the same characters are saying the same things, and reacting in the same way. It may be the 101st episode but it's not hard to follow.' That was the verdict of a Jordanian who joined the Middle East peace talks for the first time this round.

It was a depressing analysis. This time the plot was supposed to be different: the main script- writer had changed since the last series, with the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Israel's Prime Minister. As the parties flew home for a recess, those who had watched the first two weeks in Washington were left wondering why Mr Rabin had produced so few new lines, particularly on the Palestinian question.

One answer was that he forgot to change his lead character, Elyakim Rubenstein, the lawyer- diplomat who had also been Yitzhak Shamir's chief negotiator. A change of negotiator in the Syrian talks contributed to a clear improvement in relations, and it is now rumoured that Mr Rubenstein may be axed.

Mr Rubenstein was more polite than before, but used the same formulas and tactics as he had under Mr Shamir, according to Palestinians and Jordanians involved in the talks. It was the head of the Israeli delegation who last week allowed these 'historic' talks to break down because of a niggling row over who the Palestinians could use as expert advisers.

A more fundamental cause of the renewed stalemate, however, was the overblown confidence of the Israelis, with US support behind them. Israel seems to have hoped that its widely acclaimed new seriousness would be enough to force Palestinians to accept their terms for interim self-rule.

Far from weakening under new pressure, however, the Palestinians appear to have hardened their position. The delegation has taken legal and expert advice, which says Israel's terms are unacceptable. The main problem with the terms is that they give no rights over the land, because land raises issues of sovereignty - and sovereignty is not on the table.

The proposals allow Mr Rabin to maintain jurisdiction over nearly 70 per cent of West Bank land - land which that is either settled by Jews already or was acquired during the occupation as 'state land'. Palestinian autonomy would operate in vaguely defined enclaves alongside these Israeli-controlled areas. But that autonomy would be severely restricted and still under military rule. Jerusalem remains off the agenda altogether.

The Palestinians are arguing that to accept Israel's terms would be to become puppets of the occupation and to cement 'de-facto annexation' of Palestinian lands, which would prejudice the Palestinian right to full statehood in the long term.

'We cannot agree to anything that would consolidate and legalise what has been done in the past 25 years,' said Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinians' leading legal expert. 'Autonomy as the Israelis are offering it will not lead to peace.'

Issues such as Jewish settlement, land confiscation and Jerusalem must, at least, be negotiable, say the Palestinians.

The ball is back in Mr Rabin's court. The Israelis need a little visionary thinking to push the negotiators beyond procedural wrangling. Without angering the settlers Mr Rabin must find a way of assuring Palestinians that they will have some meaningful powers in the interim period, and the chance in the future to negotiate jurisdiction over land.

One cause for hope is that Mr Rabin's public utterances since his election have often shown greater vision than his negotiating team. In a speech last week he urged Israelis to abandon the idea of 'greater Israel' and to realise that strength was not a reflection of territories held. He may have had the Golan Heights in mind - with a deal with Syria now seeming closer than a deal with the Palestinians. If he had the West Bank and Gaza in mind, too, he should send a copy of his speech to his negotiators before the next talks.