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US, PALESTINIAN AND ISRAELI OFFICIALS BRIEF ON MIDEAST PEACE TALKS(Discuss political perspectives of upcoming meetings)
By William B. Reinckens
USIA Staff Writer
Washington -- A panel of Middle East experts predict that an agreement will be reached when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat meet this week to discuss the stalled Middle East Peace Process.
The Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation hosted a briefing October 14 with Palestinian, Israeli and American experts who have been involved in the Middle East Peace Process. The Clinton-Netanyahu-Arafat talks are scheduled to begin on Oct. 15 at the Wye River Conference Center in Eastern Maryland.
Panelists included: Yossi Beilin, an Israeli cabinet minister in Labor government; Dr. Saeb Erakat, one of the chief Palestinian peace negotiators and Minister of Local Governments for the Palestinian National Authority; Meir Sheetrit, deputy speaker of the Knesset; Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and an investment and trade strategist in the region; and Dr. Stephen Cohen, vice chairman of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.
Each panelist, in turn, responded to a question from Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, about the chances for an agreement being reached over the next few days.
"I think that each of the parties knows the enormous stakes that are at risk," said Ginsberg, noting that the United States' role should be that of facilitator. "If there are concessions that have to be made on either side, then it's the parties themselves that have to work them out," he said.
All of the participants thought an agreement will be signed in Washington but framed their answers within the context of differing political realities.
"The clock is really ticking on May 4th (1999). May 4th is our date with legitimacy," said Erakat about the short time that remains before the expiration of the final phase of the Oslo accord that was agreed to five years ago. It is also the date that Yasser Arafat wants to announce an independent Palestinian State, he noted. Any agreement would have to consider this date as important, he added.
The panelists speculated on what an agreement might include by reviewing what they thought might be in a final document. The final agreement, they thought, would include Arafat agreeing to an Israeli offer to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank, including three percent of a nature reserve. Construction would be barred in the reserve, which would be patrolled jointly by Israelis and Palestinians. The deal would put Palestinians in control of 40 percent of the West Bank territory.
The Palestinian Authority also wants an agreement that would permit the opening of the Gaza air and sea ports and an industrial zone there, Israeli guarantees that would allow Palestinians to travel safely between the West Bank and Gaza, and a stop to Israel's construction of Jewish settlements.
"The Prime Minister is coming with the determination to finalize the agreement. We do not have time to play," Sheetrit said, also noting the May 4th deadline. He suggested that Netanyahu was taking some important political risks at home by coming to Washington and suggested that immediately after the Wye River Conference Center agreement is signed, "we go immediately to Final Phase of negotiation." Sheetrit believes that such a move would speed up the process so that the still-unresolved core issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, could be dealt with.
"Israelis want security," he said, noting that if Arafat and Netanyahu do not reach an agreement, Arafat's standing among Palestinians and Arab public opinion would suffer.
The panel noted that any agreement would probably also include language whereby the Palestinians would draw up a concrete security plan for the land they already possess.
Israel wants a plan to include breaking up terrorist organizations and confiscating their weapons, and an agreement that the land would not be used to launch terrorist attacks. It also wants the PLO to remove language from its covenant that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and for the PLO to stop broadcasting anti-Israeli propaganda.
A workable Wye Plantation agreement, said Sheetrit, would re-create an "environment of trust" that has been damaged over the past two years.
"Our real worry is we will reach an agreement without implementation," said Erakat, about this new and still incomplete Middle East peace accord.