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U.S. plan to break deadlock in Middle East appears sound

SHARE U.S. plan to break deadlock in Middle East appears sound

Israeli newspapers have published the U.S. plan for breaking the 15-month deadlock in Middle East peace talks. If their accounts are correct, it is a good one, requiring compromise but fair to both sides.

According to Haaretz, which carried the most detailed report, Israel would have to give up another 13 percent of the West Bank, in three stages over a period of 12 weeks, linked to a measurable Palestinian security clampdown.The Palestinian National Authority currently has full control over 3 percent of the West Bank and shares control with the Israelis over 24 percent. At the end of the pullback, it would have full control over 18 percent and partial control over 22 percent for a total of 40 percent.

Israel also must agree not to build any new Jewish settlements and commit itself to "no significant expansion" of existing settlements, removing a major irritant from the peace process.

This was the Palestinians' chief complaint: that Israel was trying to change the facts on the ground before "final status" talks determined the future of the settle-ments. Groundbreaking for a new Jewish neighborhood in an Arab quarter of East Jerusalem halted the peace talks in March 1997, and settlement building in other parts of the West Bank has since accelerated.

More than 160,000 Jewish settlers now live among 1.65 million Arabs. New construction has been observed at 93 of the 130 West Bank settlements; the Foundation for Middle East Peace says housing starts in the latter half of 1997 will increase the settler population by 10 percent.

The American plan also requires Israel to halt Arab land confiscations, refrain from destroying 1,800 Palestinian homes scheduled for demolition, release more Palestinian prisoners and fulfill agreements on the long-delayed opening of a Palestinian airport and joint industrial zone in Gaza.

For their part, the Palestinians would have to outlaw incitement against Israel, confiscate all illegal weapons in self-rule areas and ensure the arrest and prosecution of terrorists. A trilateral committee will meet every two weeks to coordinate security matters, and an American-Palestinian committee will follow up on the cases of suspected Palestinian militants.

To satisfy another long-standing Israeli demand, sections of the Palestine Liberation Organization's founding charter calling for Israel's destruction would have to be annulled.

This was agreed to in the original Oslo accord, and the PLO's political arm, the Palestine National Council, did take the first step toward compliance. On April 24, 1996, it voted 504-54 to remove the offending clauses and appointed a committee to rewrite the charter.

A draft of the amendments was prepared within the six-month time frame specified by the PNC, but it was never acted upon because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel's election and began reneging on commitments made by the previous Labor government.

The American plan calls for a further redeployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank after the 13 percent pullback is completed. Its scope has yet to be determined. And it would have "final status" talks begin immediately so that an agreement can be signed by May 1999 - the original timetable envisioned by the Oslo accords.

Palestinians have agreed to the plan, scaling back their original demand for 30 percent more West Bank land to the U S -suggested 13 percent. But Netanyahu, citing security concerns, has rejected it under pressure from right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition government.

The Clinton administration, growing increasingly impatient, has announced that "the day is not far off" when it might abandon its role as mediator and let Netanyahu reap the results of his intransigence. If that happens, the Palestinians would almost certainly launch another intifada, or uprising, this time with guns instead of stones.

Israel's military commander warns of an explosion of violence if negotiations collapse. That is not the "peace with security" Netanyahu promised his countrymen.