Palestinians Show New Pragmatism as Mideast Peace Talks Approach

Article excerpt

NEW signs of unusual flexibility on the part of Palestinian leaders, as they prepare for renewed Middle East peace negotiations, have raised hopes here that an agreement with Israel might prove easier than expected. But their apparent pragmatism has prompted fears among many Palestinians that such an agreement might not satisfy their aspirations to statehood and would increase violent conflict among them.

These fears are heightened by the Palestinian Liberation Organization's new readiness to accept American advice to agree with Israel on small, practical steps toward Palestinian autonomy, rather than insisting on Israel's acceptance of broad concepts.

Meanwhile, strategists from the PLO and the delegates who will resume talks with Israel in Washington on Aug. 24 are still divided over the top issue on Israel's agenda: how to hold elections in the occupied territories.

Officials from PLO headquarters in Tunis and delegation members from the occupied territories ended a meeting here this week by agreeing on a range of scenarios for the coming talks, but say they will withhold any initiative until they hear from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"We are waiting for Mr. Rabin to see what is new in his pocket that would help make progress in the peace process," says Suleiman Najab, one of 15 members of the PLO Executive Committee.

Many Palestinian leaders and analysts here suggest that in the continuing peace talks that the United States envisages, at least a framework for an agreement with Israel might emerge as soon as the end of October. Such progress would clearly suit President Bush, who is seeking a foreign-policy success before the US election in November. The prospects for rapid movement are heightened by the Palestinians' apparent readiness to accept conditions they have previously rejected.

While negotiators still insist they will not sign any agreement without a halt to all Israeli settlement of the occupied territories, they are now willing to discuss the nature of an autonomy arrangement without such a halt.

"We are not dogmatic," says PLO Executive Committee member Saleh Raafat. "We are ready to discuss substantive issues."

At the same time, Palestinian planners are saying explicitly for the first time that they would accept Israeli military installations in the occupied territories during the five-year interim period of autonomy. Some do not even rule out the maintenance of such posts as part of a final settlement.

Such statements have led many Palestinians outside PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's close circle of advisers to speculate that many more concessions are likely, in light of Mr. Arafat's anxious desire to reach an agreement with Israel, and Washington's enthusiasm for a settlement. …