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No choice but to talk.

THE UNCEREMONIOUS December expulsion of 415 Palestinian supporters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad has threatened a terminal blow to the fragile edifice set in motion in Madrid in October 1991. Whatever the internal pressures on the Labour-led government, Yitzhak Rabin's choice of retaliatory action called into question not only his wisdom, but his basic commitment to any viable settlement with the Palestinians.

It was disingenuous, to say the least, of the Israeli prime minister to claim that a decisive blow to the Islamic militants would assist the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks. The contrary is likely to be true. It is Israel's failure to deliver any concrete gains to the negotiating team which has directly boosted support for Hamas' uncompromising anti-Madrid stand.

In itself, the Hamas deportation will not bring the talks to an end. Meeting Hamas representatives in Tunis at the end of December, Arafat made that perfectly clear. The PLO is afraid that abandoning the talks would simply play into the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Nevertheless, Arafat felt obliged last month to assert that Palestinian participation in negotiations would remain suspended until the deportee crisis had been resolved.

Whatever attempts may be made to accelerate negotiations, whether by Israeli inducements to the PLO or the Arab states or by outside intervention, talking will become harder, not easier. Because of the strength of feeling in the Palestinian streets - and particularly in the Occupied Territories where it matters most - the pressure will be towards violence, resistance and stepping up the intifada, rather than continuing with fruitless discussions. This presents the Palestinian peacemakers with an ever more thankless task.

Disappointment has increased support for the coalition of movements united by their opposition to the talks. The rejectionist front made its appearance in Tehran the week before the Madrid conference which launched the peace process in October 1991 with a joint statement by ten groups: the Islamist movement (led by Hamas), the Damascus-based PLO dissidents, and two groups from within the PLO - George Habbash's Popular Front (PFLP) and a faction with the Democratic Front (DFLP) which is headed by Nayef Hawatmeh. The ten reiterated their opposition in Damascus in September 1992.

The adherence of the PFLP and the DFLP to the coalition is of particular significance, since they do not oppose the negotiations in principle, but the terms on which they have been convened. Their presence adds weight to the coalition beyond the numbers of their members.

However, what worries Arafat and his followers in the Occupied Territories as much as the growth of the Hamas-led opposition is the increasing opposition to the talks both by independents and by many within Fateh itself. Since Arafat has staked everything on a negotiated settlement, this strikes at the heart of the movement.

The Palestinian team entered negotiations with its hands tied by the preconditions for participation laid down by the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliament-in-exile. These required that Israel immediately ceased settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, Jerusalem and the diaspora would be represented, and negotiations be based on the right to self-determination and the implementation, not interpretation, of UN Resolution 242.

But, as Arafat knew full well, the Palestinians were in such a weak position that they would not have reached the Madrid podium if they had stuck to the PNC's conditions. Had they failed to join the momentum of the peace process so carefully fostered by the then US secretary of state, James Baker, the future of the Occupied Territories would be decided without them. With the Likud settlement drive then advancing at an unprecedented rate, this meant that there would be no land left to negotiate over.

There have been certain undeniable, if modest, gains. The Israelis have, for the first time in history, negotiated face to face with Palestinians. The Rabin government has tacitly accepted the role of the PLO, removing the ban on meetings with the PLO, and has admitted diaspora Palestinians as participants to the multilateral talks. It has largely frozen settlements. Though as yet mutually unacceptable, Israel and the Palestinians have exchanged plans on interim status. Nor, as the Israelis are quick to point out, have the Palestinians halted the intifada or ceased armed resistance.

But any gains have been too little and too late. Crucially, by the end of a full year's negotiations, they had not reached the base line of the PNC's preconditions for entering the talks.

Thus, the international incident created by Israel's mass deportation came at a time when the negotiations were already in jeopardy. Aware of the growing discontent in the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian delegation has long since dropped its earlier optimistic tone. The events of December underline the uneasy position of the delegation as its claims to internal leadership face their severest challenge yet.
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Title Annotation:Israel-Palestinian peace talks
Author:Kristianasen, Wendy
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Hamas makes it to centrestage.
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