THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN peace process has reached its most crucial phase. A senior Arab official described the ninth round of negotiations in Washington, which began at the end of April, as "make or break". Essential to the success of the talks is some sign of Israeli flexibility with a view to securing Palestinian confidence in Israel as a reliable negotiating partner.
Israel's premier, Yitzhak Rabin, has shown some indication of flexibility by allowing the return of 30 long-term deportees, granting resident cards to about 5,000 former Palestinian "permanent visitors" (or immigrant workers from the Occupied Territories) and accepting the inclusion of Jerusalem-born Feisal al Husseini on the Palestinian delegation.
The Palestinians were mildly impressed at best. During the course of negotiations last month, the PLO virtually suspended its participation in negotiations by reducing its team at the talks from 14 to three. At the same time, the PLO carefully stopped short of withdrawing from the peace process altogether.
The Palestinians' main complaint in the first eight rounds of talks, according to a PLO official in London, was that the Palestinian negotiating team was "at the mercy of the balance of power". It is now happier at the increased extent of US involvement. Unlike its predecessor, the Clinton administration has promised to be a "full partner" in the talks, holding discussions with one side or the other as negotiations proceed instead or merely attending at the beginning and end of each round.
The Palestinians want more, however. Less anxious now about the Clinton administration's expected pro-Israeli tilt, the PLO would like to see US officials actually sitting in on meetings rather than circulate outside in the corridors.
Palestinian officials now speak of "minimax" demands -- their demands in the current negotiations are the maximum they are likely to request and the minimum they are prepared to accept. The current talks are asymmetric, with Israel being required to make substantial gestures and concessions, while the Palestinians wield a credible threat to walk out if Israel does not seem serious. However, the Palestinians can perhaps afford even less than Israel. "The advancement of the process is almost totally dependent on Israel," one PLO official said to The Middle East. "Rabin has personally assumed total de facto control over the extent of Israeli concessions in the current talks, using his very personal election victory...