Mideast Talks Progress Under a Shadow

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An Israeli border police officer punches a Palestinian man following his arrest

It may seem a little absurd that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are in Washington reprising the Camp David talks even as their followers continue to shoot at one another back home. Not least to the negotiators themselves, it appears, following reports that the suits on both sides almost came to blows in Thursday's session. But conventional wisdom holds that a peace deal with the Palestinians remains the key to Ehud Barak's chances of reelection, and that has encouraged an unlikely optimism among some observers of the talks. Still, the Israeli election on February 6 gives the talks an air of unreality — even if they do manage to seal a deal, it'll only survive if Barak wins, and right now that's a long shot.

At issue in the talks, as at Camp David, are the extent of Israel's withdrawal from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967, the fate of the settlements it built there in the intervening years, the claims of Palestinian refugees driven out of Israel in 1948, and of course sovereignty over the hill in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Mazari al Sharif. Both sides have reported progress in talks over a deal brokered by the Americans, in which Israel would withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and from most of Arab East Jerusalem, resolving the status of the disputed Holy Sites in a bit of linguistic sophistry that fudges the question of sovereignty in a way that allows both sides to claim their demands have been satisfied. The deal, whose details are still being fiercely contested, would require the Palestinians to drop claims for the right of refugees to return to Israel. The negotiators are due to report back to President Clinton on Saturday, to assess the possibility of closing the gaps.

Attitudes are hardening

But Bollings Air Force base in Washington must feel like an insulated bubble to the diplomats dispatched by both sides to search for a deal. Arch-hawk Ariel Sharon is somewhere between 11 and 18 percent ahead of prime minister Ehud Barak in the polls, which casts a very real shadow over the talks in Washington. After all, the very basis of Sharon's campaign is rejection of Barak's peacemaking efforts as naïve and dangerous, leaving the Palestinian negotiators with the realization that the chances of their Israeli counterparts' being able to deliver on any undertakings are slim.

And even as the negotiators parsed the fine print of the U.S. proposals Thursday, four more Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza. Attitudes on the Palestinian streets are hardening from indifference to the efforts of Arafat's negotiators to open hostility. He may not face a reelection battle as such, but the Palestinian leader is unable to entirely disregard Palestinian public opinion. Even in the best-case scenario, then, the talks in Washington may produce a document that will simply serve as a reminder of what might have been.