U.S. Leaves Palestinians and Israel to Slug it Out

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With the referee staying out of the ring, the Palestinians may have no choice but to accept Israel’s timetable for implementing the Wye land-for-peace accord. Negotiators from the two sides met Wednesday to finalize a timetable for completing Israeli withdrawal from the 13.1 percent of the West Bank envisaged by Wye, after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright postponed her visit to the region – at Israel’s request. "Naturally the Palestinians were very unhappy about Albright’s decision, because they wanted her to come and get in the middle," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "While the Israelis want the U.S. to scale down its direct role in the peace process, the Palestinians need someone else in the ring, because otherwise they’re always getting clobbered."

Although Prime Minister Ehud Barak has vowed to meet Israel’s obligations under Wye, he wants to delay the implementation of the two remaining troop withdrawals for fear of leaving Israeli settlements isolated in Palestinian territory. "Barak would prefer a final status agreement before completing the troop withdrawal, because he believes isolating the settlements gives hard-liners on both sides an incentive to stir up trouble and jeopardize the process," says Beyer. Previous redeployments have prompted Palestinian militants to shoot at settlers and have spurred the settlers to expand their settlements. Barak knows he’ll have to dismantle some of the settlements as part of the final agreement, but believes a piecemeal Israeli withdrawal ahead of such an agreement is even riskier than confronting the settlers with a done deal. But his Palestinian counterparts lack the patience for such nuance. "After the last few years’ experience, the Palestinians no longer trust goodwill and promises," says Beyer. "They trust only what they hold in their hands" -- land, and signed agreements to transfer more land.