Tough deal for the Palestinians: Israel's latest and best offer on autonomy for the West Bank still falls far short of self-rule, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST serious discussions between Palestinians and Israelis begin on Monday on the shape of Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli occupied territories. Under terms drawn up at the Madrid conference almost a year ago, where the present peace round was launched, these negotiations aim only at agreeing 'interim arrangements'. Once this interim autonomy is in place, the two sides can discuss options for final arrangements. The Palestinians aspire to an independent state.

Since the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister in June, Israel has been portrayed as making all the concessions. However, when the hard proposals are tabled in Washington, these concessions may appear to have been exaggerated. Large swathes of Jewish settlement are excluded from the so-called freeze on building. And Israel is manoeuvring to hold on to nearly 70 per cent of the land of the West Bank.

Furthermore, the powers being offered to the interim authority are limited. On Israeli terms, the Palestinian body would be more like a local council than a fledgling government.

What the Israelis can argue next week, however, is that theirs is a serious offer - the first the Palestinians have had for many years, and the last they are likely to get. Furthermore, a deal done on autonomy does not, in theory, prejudice later talks on the final status of the region. Israel says that if the Palestinians show they can make autonomy work, confidence will build for a more permanent transfer of power.

Israel's proposals for autonomy are closely based on the Camp David accords of 1978 with Egypt. These would allow the Palestinians to elect a council of fewer than 20 people. It would have no powers over foreign policy or security but would be able to administer other functions now carried out by the military authorities: education, health, trade and criminal justice, for example.

This is an improvement on what was offered by Yitzhak Shamir, Mr Rabin's predecessor, who proposed only that the Palestinians should be able to have municipal elections. The administrative council would have no legislative powers, no control over east Jerusalem, and would be able only to make by-laws and regulations, while 2,000 Israeli military laws and regulations would remain.

The council would remain answerable to the military governor of the occupied territories. If its by-laws were refused, the only appeal would be to the Israeli High Court of Justice. Although military forces would withdraw from centres of Arab population, the occupation 'status quo' would remain in place during autonomy, as Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, has confirmed.

The Palestinians want a full legislative body. They argue that the Israeli plan allows them only the power to enact the occupation laws and decrees. It is in this key area that they will fight hardest in the negotiations.

The Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said this week: 'We are negotiating a Palestinian interim self-government, authority and arrangement . . . that will allow us to carry out a meaningful transfer of authority from Israeli occupation to a Palestinian, elected, national authority.'

In addition to its limited legal powers, the Israelis refuse to give the Palestinian council any clear territorial boundaries. It is, say the Israelis, autonomy of people, not land. The Palestinians insist that the borders of their autonomous region be clearly defined as containing all the lands seized by Israel in 1967, including east Jerusalem. Without a clear territorial map of where their authority lies, their powers would be meaningless, they say.

By keeping the boundaries of the autonomous area vague and murky, however, Israel can also hide its long-term intentions. It has made clear that settlements would remain under Israeli control. Israel has slowed down building, but the only settlements the government has agreed to freeze so far are about 6,000 which are on the plans. A further 11,000 homes which have been started will be finished, which means if these houses are filled, the Jewish population of the occupied territories will be increased in about a year by a further 50,000 people.

The music of peace has changed since Mr Rabin came to power, even if this has yet to be proven by changes on the ground. Despite the limited slow-down on settlements, it is accepted that the government has tried to turn public opinion against Likud-style settlement expansion. There have also been other practical signs of Mr Rabin's more conciliatory approach. He has signalled he is prepared to ease some human rights restrictions and may lift some deportation orders soon. Israeli officials argue that they cannot move faster than they have for fear of a right- wing backlash. Nevertheless, the price they will demand for autonomy is a high one for the Palestinians to pay.

(Photograph omitted)