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Israel and Palestinians Sitting Tight

Washington urges confidence-building measures, but neither side opts to take the first step

AS Israelis and Palestinians wait for Washington to unveil its newest vision of a Mideast peace process, even the preliminary question of how to build confidence between the two sides is proving to be a nonstarter. On the one hand, Israeli officials say they do not feel obliged to come up with any ideas, and are waiting to respond to United States proposals. On the other, Palestinian political figures worry that steps to earn Israelis' trust could end up diverting world attention from their basic goal.

During his recent postwar trip through the Middle East, US Secretary of State James Baker III suggested that both Israel and the Arab countries might engage in a series of ``confidence-building measures'' as signs of goodwill, to oil the wheels of peace talks.

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Such steps, early on, would precede substantive negotiations along the twin tracks that the US peace initiative appears to be taking - attempting to resolve the Palestinian question and achieve peace treaties between Israel and the Arab states at the same time.

At a press conference in Jerusalem, Baker told a Palestinian journalist that ``we would like to see the economic strain and burden eased'' in Israeli occupied territories hurt by unemployment.

``We would like to see freedom of expression,'' he said, referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where political meetings are banned and publications are subject to censorship.

Such ideas have so far drawn no echo from Israel, where ``there has been no serious discussion yet in the government'' about what could be done, an Israeli official said privately.

``We don't think it's for us to come up with ideas,'' he added. ``If Washington wants something, it can ask us and we will respond. So far they have not come up with anything.''

The list of steps the Israeli government could take to ease the harshness of daily life under its occupation is a long one, Western diplomats in Jerusalem say. Baker suggested some of the moves he would like to see when he met 10 Palestinian notables here, according to sources at the meeting.

Among Palestinian grievances is the practice of administrative detention - imprisonment without charge or trial - used against many hundreds of Palestinians at any one time. Human rights organizations complain that this permits the Israeli army to arrest anyone for whatever reason.

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US officials have protested the use of administrative detention in the past, and its abolition might be among confidence-building measures Baker has in mind, diplomats and Israeli politicians say.

Particularly harsh punishment, such as the destruction of homes belonging to Palestinians accused of attacking Israeli soldiers, has drawn international condemnation. This practice could also be a candidate for suspension.

At the same time, the three largest universities in the West Bank - Bir Zeit, Hebron, and An Najah in Nablus - remain closed by order of the occupation authorities. Curfews still limit Palestinians' movements in some towns and heavy regulations restricting entry of the territories' residents into Israel cause financial hardship for thousands of families.

WHEREAS about 110,000 Palestinians from the territories had jobs in Israel before the Gulf war, only 30,000 or so are being allowed across the ``green line'' today.

All these issues offer a range of options for an Israeli government seeking to show goodwill in future talks, diplomats point out. Palestinians, however, say they would be wary of such gestures.

``Israel always tries to deflect attention by dissipating energy on issues that are not basic to ending the occupation,'' argues Hanna Siniora, editor of the Palestinian daily Al Fajr.

``Opening universities, protecting human rights, respecting international conventions - these are things that Israel is obliged to do. They won't build confidence,'' he adds.

``What would build confidence would be for them to say they are here on a temporary basis, that they will withdraw from the territories, that they will treat us as a people,'' he says. ``We've said we want to build a Palestinian state side by side with the Israeli state, and we need something on the same level from them.''

A Israeli Arab member of the Israeli Parliament Mohammed Miari is equally cautious.

``Confidence-building measures are not the important matters,'' Mr. Miari says. ``The question is whether Israel is ready to enter a process that will give Palestinians self-determination. If they say `yes,' then we can deal with the details. But it would all be in vain if there were no Israeli commitment that the details were directed towards a solution of the real issue.''

One gesture, Mr. Siniora says, would indeed be seen by Palestinians as a genuine signal of goodwill. ``If they stop founding settlements [on the West Bank] and stop expanding existing settlements, that would signal that they are ready to talk,'' he says.

``The Palestinians see that as a real indicator of what the Israelis are up to in the long term,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The rest is just icing on the cake.''

Asking Israel to freeze settlements, however, ``would be too much at this time,'' the diplomat adds. ``Washington wants to suggest things it thinks might succeed, and [asking for a freeze on settlements] would create such a furor here it would be a nonstarter.''

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