NEWS about the threatened resignation of top Palestinian negotiators suggests a rift between Palestinians inside the Israeli-occupied territories and those outside. The rift is over the extent of concessions and the authority to make them. Much has been said about Arafat's fear of becoming irrelevant should negotiations deliver an entity for the Palestinians.
The real issue these deep tensions reflect is concern in the Palestinian street about whether negotiations will lead to genuine independence - or to a fractured state whose destiny is determined by others. Having participated in the Madrid Conference under conditions dictated largely by Israel, the Palestinians acknowledged the bitter realities of the post-Gulf, post-cold-war period.
Palestinians expected to make concessions. Regional and global balances have shifted. The Palestinian and Arab position changed as the Soviet Union was transformed from chief diplomatic backer and arms supplier to a mere United States appendage in the peace process. Also, Israel's strategic role was reduced, and it became preoccupied with sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Still, the Arab world has not fully accepted the conclusions that the US and Israel have drawn from such changes. Hence the current impasse. This is not to say the conclusions of Washington and Tel Aviv are the same, though they are similar. Suffice it to say that President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III differed somewhat from Israel on the real meaning of such issues as UN Security Council Resolution 242, the exchange of land for peace, the question of colonial settlements, and the status o f Jerusalem. But the US never quite bridged the Arab-Israeli gap with specific proposals:
Are the occupied territories occupied or not? Does a Palestinian "self-governing" entity have a geographic definition? What lies at the end of a "transitional period" to autonomy?
These are clear issues; but Mr. Baker's approach was ambiguous. Throughout the Bush and Baker period in the Middle East, the Palestinians hoped to resolve these issues on the basis of written US assurances conveyed to them prior to Madrid: the exchange of land for peace, termination of the Israeli occupation, and reaffirmation of the US position that Jerusalem is occupied territory - among others.
This scaled-back position was sustained by a solid consensus in the 6-million-strong worldwide Palestinian community, and the larger Arab world. Madrid signified a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only did the Arabs and Palestinians accept the reality of Israel in the era of decolonization, but they also accepted its legitimacy as a state - even prior to an explicit acknowledgment by Israel of its occupation of their land.
Unique as it is in the history of negotiations, the absence of such acknowledgment on Israel's part has impeded any movement away from the diplomatic dead center after more than 20 months of going through the motions.
Now the Clinton administration has brought its team into the arena and a new and rather ominous situation has emerged. First, with self-described Zionists in top foreign-policy positions, the pro-Israel lobby has been transformed from merely pressuring Congress and the White House to actually conceptualizing and articulating United States Middle East policy. The Clinton Middle East debate has become an entirely Jewish family affair; the spectrum is narrow with AIPAC, the pro-Israel main lobby, and the mo re liberal Americans for Peace Now occupying the entire discussion.
Second, Clinton's indebtedness to Jewish voters constrains his position as "honest broker." American Jews contributed 60 percent of Clinton's noninstitutional campaign funds, and 80 percent of Jewish voters supported Clinton (New York Times, Jan. 5). Whether or not Clinton's policy departs from Bush's has been put to the test by Israel during the past seven months. Washington has ignored three major escalations of the conflict undertaken by the Rabin government.
The expulsion of 400 Palestinians to Lebanon in December led the White House to shield Israel from Security Council sanctions.
The closure of the occupied territories has created enormous hardships; but the arbiter normally concerned with confidence-building measures has said little.
The recent bombardment of Lebanon with the declared objective of depopulating the south caused civilian casualties and the destruction of 70 Lebanese villages. But this seemed not to antagonize the honest broker.
Washington's "Declaration of Principles" on June 30 removed any ambiguity as to where Clinton stands. Three elements in the paper may prolong a stalemate: First, an implication that the West Bank and Gaza are disputed rather than occupied territories.
Second, the absence of any reference to the exchange of land for peace, or to Israeli withdrawal or even redeployment - implying that Israel has an equal right to lay claim to the land.
Third, the declaration commits the Palestinians to agree that all matters relating to sovereignty are outside negotiations - meaning the discussion of Jerusalem, the expanding settlements, and land are deferred for years.
Also, by treating the issue of land separately in the declaration, the focus of negotiations would be limited to authority over people but not territory. This implies that the people are reduced to the status of a minority rather than a people with natural rights.
The departure in US policy, which modifies the Madrid framework and the US letter of assurances, is the real cause for the rumored rift in Palestinian ranks. The issue is not "inside" or "outside" leaders - but the extent to which the Palestinians as a whole will go below their minimal position for the sake of a settlement.