As the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks inched fitfully forward this week, Yasir Arafat moved to shore up his leadership position in the Palestinian community by seeking to reunite with several Palestinian groups that had rejected his leadership after he signed the 1993 Oslo peace accord.
Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank and Gaza, met Sunday with Nayef Hawatmeh, chairman of the Syrian-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The two agreed to revive the Palestinian Liberation Organization for the purpose of overseeing the final-status talks that are soon to be held with Israel, and they called upon other opposition Palestinian and Islamic groups to join them.
On Aug. 1, Arafat met with the deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in an effort to bring it too back into the fold.
Until now, Arafat and his Fatah loyalists have alone conducted talks with Israel. Palestinian officials said several opposition groups would meet next week in the West Bank town of Ramallah to coordinate negotiating positions and to pave the way for a larger meeting of all Palestinian factions later in the year.
The moves were viewed in a positive light by Colette Avital, Israel’s former consul general in New York and now a leader of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party.
“I think it’s a good thing because he is co-opting organizations that had opposed the peace process,” she said of Arafat. “He is strengthening himself against all the organizations that were refusing [to go along with the Oslo peace process]. It’s just like when Barak said he needed a wide coalition, otherwise someone afterwards might ask who gave him the right to take such actions and would fight against him.”
Avital said also that she did not believe that bringing these hard-line groups to the bargaining table would make it more difficult to achieve a peace accord.
“Obviously the demands in negotiations are going to be very high,” she said. “Everyone who knows the Middle East knows that they will try to bargain with the highest demands possible. But they are realistic and know what they can get and where the red lines are for Israel.”
An Israeli official told Agence France-Presse that by joining with Arafat, these opposition groups realize “their strategy has totally failed. They are aware that they are in a dead end and that the salvation of the Palestinian people will not come from Syria.” And by embracing these groups, he said, Arafat will be able to “better control his former opponents.”
The final-status talks will focus on such issues as the future of Jerusalem, Israel’s borders, Palestinian statehood and Palestinian refugees.
Avital brushed off reports of a deadlock between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in resolving two critical issues — the release of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank. Both are called for in the Wye River agreement signed last October in Maryland.
“There are always breakdowns and coming back and making noises and scenes,” she said. “We should understand by now that this is part of the game.”
Israel is reportedly insisting that the last phase of an Israeli troop withdrawal take place on Feb. 15. The Palestinians want it completed two months earlier. And the Palestinians want Israel to release 650 prisoners. Israel said it has only 250 prisoners who were not involved in deadly terror attacks. The Israeli cabinet on Sunday reaffirmed that prisoners with “blood on their hands” would not be released, and that prisoners had to first renounce terrorism.
The talks stalled after the two sides had agreed earlier in the week to the start of construction Oct. 1 on a port in Gaza City and to the opening of a safe passage route for Palestinians between Gaza and a city south of Hebron. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said there was still no agreement on a northern safe passage route to Ramallah. Initially, the Palestinians had linked the opening of the southern route to a resolution on the northern route. Now they said they hoped the northern route would be open by Jan. 1.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, told reporters that a series of security issues had also been resolved. He said the Palestinians had repeated their commitment to fight terrorism and would provide Israel with a list of all the members of the Palestinian police force. Israel believes there are more than 40,000, even though the Oslo accords limited the number to 30,000. In addition, he said the Palestinians would collect all illegal weapons in the territories under their control.
But Israel has made clear that none of this week’s agreements would be implemented until two unresolved issues — the prisoner release and Israeli troop withdrawal — are settled. A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that if there is no deal, Israel was still prepared to implement Wye in its original format but would be in no hurry to implement the agreements reached this week. Both sides said a summit between Arafat and Barak would occur only when these issues were resolved.
Meanwhile, Syria is said to be anxious to have Secretary of State Madeleine Albright restart its peace negotiations with Israel that broke off in 1996. She is to visit the region next weekend. The Syrian government newspaper Tishrin said Albright has a “real opportunity to relaunch the peace process and make it succeed.”