Palestinians stall to get concessions: Delegates to the Middle East peace talks spell out their reservations and resentment

WHAT IS a week's delay in resuming negotiations broken off more than four months ago, especially when the subject of the talks is a dispute over land that has festered for almost 25 years? But, by the same token, what can the Palestinians gain from their procrastination?

The answer may be money: the Saudis have offered to resume payments to the increasingly desperate Palestine Liberation Organisation, suspended because of the PLO stand during the Gulf war.

Last night, however, the PLO, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt were preparing to issue a statement endorsing the peace talks. 'The communique is positive. We could not take any decision except the positive one,' said Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Shara, after meeting his Arab counterparts in Damascus.

The peace talks due to have begun in Washington yesterday were to have been the first Middle East peace negotiations of the Clinton administration. They were to have been the first since the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, created a very real obstacle by his banishment to southern Lebanon in December of more than 400 Palestinian Islamic militants.

For four months, Western diplomacy has sought to persuade the Arab parties to the talks that not to attend would be seen as a victory for the intransigent position of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which opposes the peace talks. The three Arab states - Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon - were all keen to pursue their national interests in resuming their talks and not being held back by the deportation iEssue. It seemed, until the last minute, that the Palestinians wTHER write errorould reluctantly retake their place at the table. It was not to be.

The Palestinian objections were spelt out at the end of the week by the spokeswoman to the delegation, Hanan Ashrawi. In 18 months of negotiations, she could see no progress, only a deterioration of conditions in the occupied territories.

There were other reasons. Pique played a part. When President Mubarak of Egypt, a country that is not directly concerned with the negotiations since it already has a peace of sorts with Israel, announced that the Palestinians would be at the table yesterday, they felt they were being taken for granted.

Mr Mubarak's hopefulness was based on the package of concessions that Mr Rabin had told him Israel was prepared to make to the Palestinians to bring them back to the table. First, was a declaration that the December deportations were an extraordinary act, and would not happen again except in extraordinary circumstances. Second, it was announced that Faisal Husseini, acknowledged leader of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, would in future be allowed to head the team, despite being a resident of east Jerusalem, which Israel does not consider occupied territory.

The Palestinians had other real concerns. First, they were unswayed by yet more statements of intent. They wanted a written commitment that there would be no more deportations. This was something Mr Rabin, under pressure from his own citizens to take tougher action to stop a spate of killings of Israelis by Palestinians, was unable to come up with. Second, they were worried that if the US could not get Israel to implement in full UN Security Council Resolution 799, calling for the return of all those expelled by Israel, then there was little prospect for Israel ever complying with Council resolution 242 on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territory occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In addition, the lives of members of the delegations and their families had been threatened by extremists, including some linked to Hamas. But the Palestinians could ill afford to be seen turning for protection to the Israelis, whose occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip they are seeking to end. When the Palestinian delegates began their task in Madrid 18 months ago, they must have calculated that they faced real dangers from extreme elements whether they failed or succeeded. Those dangers are likely to increase.

The Palestinians have not done themselves any favours in Washington. No indication was given during preparatory meetings last week that there were problems. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has said he expects only a 'relatively minor delay'. Despite other pressing issues on his agenda, such as sanctions against Serbia and Russia's referendum, he stands firm on a more high- level US commitment to the talks. But his patience is not unlimited.

The Palestinians also knew that this was the last chance to cavil at the talks. For the next round is intended to be a continuous negotiation. And whatever the Arab rhetoric about the need for a comprehensive solution, that is one in which all Arab interests are taken into account, the effect will be to increase the possibility of the Arab states moving faster towards agreements, without being constrained by the Palestinians.

JERUSALEM - Israeli building contractors are threatening an all-out strike if the government refuses to let at least 20,000 Palestinians into the country to work in the industry, AFP reports. Some 70,000 Palestinians were employed on Israeli construction sites when Mr Rabin banned entry for Palestinians from the occupied territories at the end of March in an attempt to curb violence.

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