Palestinians urged to compromise in peace talks: The 'darlings' of Madrid will find next week tougher, writes Sarah Helm from Jerusalem

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AS THE Palestinian delegation heads for Washington to prepare for next week's peace talks, they leave behind a deep apprehension in the West Bank that they are in for a trouncing.

The Palestinians will come under enormous pressure to accept terms for self-rule which are drastically below their demands. They know that world opinion has now swung behind Yitzhak Rabin, the new Israeli Prime Minister. The 'darlings' of Madrid, who so easily won the sympathy battle against the former Israeli leader, Yitzhak Shamir, appear isolated and unready.

What the Palestinians will ask for in Washington, as a first step towards full independence, is an agreement for the transfer of power from the Israeli occupation forces to an elected Palestinian assembly able to make laws over all the lands seized by Israel in 1967 including east Jerusalem.

What the Israelis will offer, however, is a very limited form of Palestinian autonomy, run by a small administrative council, with no law-making powers. The lands over which the council would exercise its local authority would probably be not more than half the area seized in 1967, excluding east Jerusalem.

Whatever compromises are reached in the negotiations, for the Palestinians to accept terms like these is unthinkable - as it would have been under Mr Shamir. But if they reject, the world will accuse them of missing an historic opportunity for peace, and the only one on the horizon.

The Palestinians can expect little sympathy from the United States. US officials scorn their amateur approach to the talks, their 'whingeing' and their failure to produce constructive proposals. The extent of the delegation's failings, say Western and Israeli officials, has become apparent only now because the talks centre on real substance.

The Palestinian delegation is being sniped at from many angles. The members were chosen not for their cut and thrust or expertise in specific fields but because they represented certain towns, families or factions. 'They are a representation, not a delegation,' say Western officials.

Then the delegation is criticised for being disorganised and 'slovenly'. It has no real office. Its de facto leader, Faisal Husseini, directs operations from his home, while many key players must fit their delegation work around full-time jobs as doctors, university professors or businessmen. The delegation has little expert back-up. It set up 37 technical committees, but they have failed to produce one concise, accurate or well-argued document, say the critics. 'If they can't do it on paper, who is going to believe they can do it in practice?' said one Western diplomat.

Furthermore, the delegation has failed dismally to take the initiative. Its critics claim it could have set up viable shadow institutions years ago, to show it was ready for government - as the Zionists did before their state was established.

The Palestinians 'whinge' to the American consulate, which they use as an ad hoc diplomatic representation when they are unable to obtain information from the Israelis. But they do nothing to set up their own research.

The Palestinians are also criticised for clinging to their symbols. They insist on raising the question of Jerusalem with the Israelis, fully aware that it antagonises. 'We have told them to shut up about Jerusalem, to be more pragmatic. Israelis may hold on to their symbols, too. But the Israelis are the ones with the power. That is a fact. The Palestinians must realise that they must negotiate with people who have the power,' the diplomat added.

The Palestinian delegation is aware it is being undermined in this way and is bitter. The Americans say who has the power in the negotiations, and have chosen, of late, to bolster Mr Rabin.

The enormous handicaps the delegation faces, working under military occupation, are being forgotton. Its members have almost all at some time been arrested, detained, deported or jailed for political reasons.

There is no free press in the occupied territories where Israeli military censorship is in place and no Palestinian television. Movement is restricted by the military authorities. There are no political parties. There are tight restriction on public meetings.

The delegation has volunteered for the job. It has no civil service backing and has been offered little help from abroad. Israel has an entire Foreign Ministry of professionals. Despite this it has prepared detailed position papers, it says, the details of which cannot be revealed for fear of Israeli sabotage. The delegates are nervous about Israeli dirty tricks at every turn.

To research their positions on water or elections, the Palestinians have had access to no statistics, which Israel refuses to hand over. They do not even have access to the last census.

Furthermore, the Palestinians are constantly having to win credibility in their communities where the rejectionist factions are powerful. They say Israel has made no changes on the ground yet to boost the delegation's credibility. They fear death threats and have no personal security.

The Palestinians say that despite these handicaps their positions in Washington will be clear and they will not pay any price for peace. They know this time the talks are for real; the Israelis will come with detailed proposals requiring detail responses. They say they are ready.

DAMASCUS - Arab participants in the peace talks said yesterday they would attend next week's round and urged the US to be an honest broker, AP reports. The Arab side received 'certain clarifications' about the US-Israeli deal, some 'positive, some obscure and others needing further clarification', declared Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian Foreign Minister.

(Photographs omitted)