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Yet another beginning.

THEY SAID THAT THE Middle East peace talks really began with the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Israel's prime minister earlier this year. Now the election of Bill Clinton to the US presidency is believed to be yet "another beginning" for the peace process.

Beginning again seems to be a habit for the Palestinians, who have been trying to get back their land for the past 40 years by a variety of means. By the way things look, the peace process may not be the answer to their dreams.

While the PLO-sanctioned negotiators hammer away at the Israelis in Washington, opponents to the talks, which include the second and third largest groups within the PLO and the fundamentalist Hamas, are gaining in popularity. Both inside the Occupied Territories and in the refugee camps spread across Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the "coalition of ten" Palestinian opposition parties is attracting attention and support for them is increasing.

The PFLP and the DFLP, second only to Yasser Arafat's Fateh in the popular support and membership they enjoy, says that the framework of the current peace negotiations is counter-productive for the Palestinians. Statehood, having been guaranteed by UN resolution 181, is being refused at the outset of the talks by both Israel and neutral co-sponsor, the United States.

The squabbling about "administrative councils" and "legislative bodies" that has been the essence of the negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators thus far, is a "waste of time" says the opposition. It claims that Israel will try to isolate the Palestinians by making separate peace agreements

with all other Arab parties first. Recent developments involving Syria and Jordan certainly point in that direction.

The invisibility of any concrete results arising from the peace process more than one year after its initial beginning, has created criticism of the process among the Palestinian masses. Yasser Arafat's popularity has also suffered. While it would be premature to say that he was slipping in the popularity polls in the Occupied Territories, the Palestinians in the diaspora now clearly prefer to see Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdul Shafi speaking on their behalf.

The diaspora Palestinians also appear to have more faith in the negotiating team than in the PLO executives. They are proud that the negotiators are respected intellectuals with backgrounds in academia and that they served prison terms for their opposition to Israel.

The heroes, in short, are no longer the fadayin, the freedom fighters of the PLO. The children and women of the intifada have taken their place. In the consciousness of Palestinians, the intifada was probably the single greatest turning point of the last 40 years, which brought confidence and self-respect.

Teaching people that wars could be fought without nuclear weapons, bombs and guns and without international lobbies and oil money, the intifada marked a new kind of revolution. It was also the psychological transformation wrought by the intifada that created the groundwork for initial acceptance of the peace process. The disastrous defeat of Iraq and the realisation that conflicts are not always won with guns made many Palestinians aware as never before that they must give the peace process a chance.

Today that willingness appears to have been in vain. Palestinians want to see results on core issues, but Israel is not making concessions. It believes it can contain the opposition and make deals with its other Arab neighbours.

While Israelis are well aware of the growing popularity of both Hamas and the opposition groups within the PLO, there is a general complacency in thinking that they can be controlled. This is a dangerous misconception.

Israel must now move to create a framework that will lead to a lasting solution of cohabitation. The Palestinians must have their state, whatever form it takes. An arms-free Palestine is all but accepted by the Palestinians themselves.

With a deep regard for history, the Israelis should appreciate the persistent strength of nationalism. A look at the conflict in the Balkans is proof. If the Israelis strive with the Palestinians to work out a peace based on the existing UN resolutions then peace is possible. If they do not, then they will only prove the Palestinian opposition right.

As the latest round of Middle East peace talks resumed last month in Washington, there was precious little sign of Israel moving towards a breakthrough. There were two telling instances of Israel's apparent determination to seek any opportunity for a display of intransigence.

One was its last-minute refusal to attend an international conference on Palestinian refugees in Ottawa. The reason given was that the Palestinian delegation was headed by Mohammed Hallej, a member of the Palestine National Council.

Israeli attendance at a conference specifically focussing on the lot of the Palestinian diaspora might have marked a significant setback to prospects for progress in the Washington talks.

A second obstacle has been the resurgence of Hizbollah guerrilla activity in south Lebanon. The re-opening of the Washington negotiations took place against the background of renewed Hizbollah rocket attacks across Israel's northern border. Israel is convinced that Syria is deliberately allowing Hizbollah to mount attacks so as to increase pressure on the Israelis to evacuate the Golan Heights.

Maybe so. But such sideshows are really a distraction from the key issue of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. When he came to power, Rabin implied forcefully that the Palestinians were the central element in a peace agreement. Today, he seems to be losing sight of obtaining this objective.
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Title Annotation:Leaders; Middle East peace talks
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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