Rabin's opening gambit puts an end to euphoria over talks: Palestinians are disappointed by the small print of the new Israeli government's proposals for self-rule in the territories, writes Sarah Helm from Washington

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The Independent Online
A FAMILIAR buzz of scepticism was audible by the end of the week in the corridors of Washington's Grand Hotel, where the Palestinian delegates to the Middle East peace talks have been staying. Hanan Ashrawi, the delegation's spokeswoman, gleaming and positive on Monday, by yesterday looked pale and a little sad.

Even over at the Mayflower, the Israeli base, there was concern that the early euphoria should be played down. No one in the Israeli delegation ever gleams, but their presentation grew ever duller as the week wore on.

The immense political will, on all sides, to succeed had created an atmosphere quite out of proportion to the looming practical problems. 'Its all the Syrians' fault,' said one Palestinian, referring to the 'irresponsible' enthusiasm displayed by the normally dour Syrians on the first day of the talks.

For the Palestinians it was the dead weight of the text that thumped on their desks on Tuesday which ended that mood. True to its word, Israel had presented 'detailed proposals' on every aspect of Palestinian autonomy. The previous Likud government had never bothered to reply to most Palestinian proposals. And when they did, it was on one side of A4 paper. Demonstrating the 'sea change' in attitude, the Labour-appointed delegation presented thick wads of small print. 'They went into everything from mosquito control to waste disposal,' according to one Palestinian official.

But once the Palestinian team had pored over every dot and comma, they were left wondering whether there was any more of substance than they had seen on Likud's piece of paper. Indeed, the Israeli document appeared to be offering somewhat less than Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, and his colleagues had been suggesting in the press that they were prepared to propose.

Everyone had expected disagreement over the key question of the powers to be given to the new Palestinian self-rule body, under the period of autonomy. Israel had made clear it would attempt to restrict the powers of the body to an administrative role, with the ability to make by-laws and regulations only.

In fact, Israel did not even appear to be offering this. Although, in theory, the document says that the Palestinians should run their own lives - taking control of health, education, justice, transport, the environment, and so on - they will nevertheless be expected to refer every decision back to the Israeli authorities. There is no proposal in the document for rescinding existing military laws. The document proposes setting up a system of Israeli committees in effect to shadow the decisions taken by the autonomous authority. One Palestinian said: 'There is room for Israeli intervention at every stage - every level - of what we do. Not only can we not legislate, it appears we cannot make by-laws without their say so.'

On Thursday the Israelis attempted to appease Palestinian objections by suggesting that a joint Israeli-Palestinian authority be set up to consider whether some military laws might be rescinded. This idea was seen as positive, but the Palestinians said it would be useless if Israel maintained a veto.

What has also disturbed the Palestinians is that the document does not refer to land or borders. While nobody expected Israel to declare its hand on the question of territory, it had been expected that Israel might address the question of demarcation - between Israeli and Palestinian tax areas; between Israeli and Palestinian traffic laws, for example.

Perhaps most surprising is that there is no mention in the Israeli proposal so far of military withdrawal, even though Israeli officials had earlier been talking of military withdrawal from areas of Arab population.

The extreme disappointment over the Israeli autonomy proposal prompted all other sides in the talks to slam on the brakes in their separate negotiations. By Friday the Syrians and the Jordanians were talking in highly guarded terms. The Lebanese were voicing outright anger, saying talks on Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon had reached an 'impasse'.

As the Palestinians readily acknowledge, the Israeli proposal is only a first offer. All hopes are on the Americans - who need a Middle East success - to knock heads together.

(Photograph omitted)