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Palestinians Seek Negotiating Shift In Wake of Delay in Israeli Pullout

PALESTINIANS are calling for a halt to the peace talks if Israel does not agree to immediately withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.

``There should be a thorough reassessment of the Palestinian negotiating position. If Israel insists on its intransigence, the talks will definitely be suspended,'' says Saleh Raafat, of the Palestine Democratic Union (PDU), which supports the Sept. 13 peace agreement signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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Israeli troop withdrawal was scheduled to start Dec. 13, but was delayed when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin agreed Dec. 12 they needed more time to reach agreement on final details of the handover.

Meanwhile, the violence continues. Israeli border police in Gaza killed a Palestinian gunman on Dec. 14, then blew up his bomb-laden car in violence that coincided with the sixth anniversary of the founding of Hamas, a Muslim fundamentalist group that opposes the peace accord.

In the talks, Mr. Arafat has insisted on controlling border crossings into Jordan and Egypt and a total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho. Israelis want to retain supervision of the crossing points and are seeking a limited redeployment of the Israeli Army within Gaza.

Arafat's refusal to compromise has boosted his standing among his critics within the PLO, who have attacked him for monopolizing negotiating decisions.

``He is now in a better position to counter arguments that his solo performance would lead to concessions,'' says an official from Fatah, the mainstream PLO group led by Arafat.

The PLO leader's critics, however, argue that the deadlock has underscored the urgency of forming a collective leadership and effecting political reforms to strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position.

``Arafat is in a serious political and negotiating crisis. His only way out is to restore the role of the PLO institution and concede to reformist demands,'' says Tayseer Al Arouri, from the Palestine People's Party (former Communist Party).

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The PPP and the PDU, Arafat's major Palestinian allies, are spearheading a reformist campaign to end the PLO leader's monopoly over the peace process.

The two groups supported Arafat's stance at the Cairo meeting with Mr. Rabin, but warn that any major compromises could shatter Palestinian support for the peace process.

Palestinian officials in Tunis, the PLO leadership's base, say that Arafat has alienated most of his colleagues by trying to exclude them from the decisionmaking process.

They say that Arafat now has an opportunity to pull the PLO together as concern is deepening that Israel will consolidate its control over the territories.

Arafat considers control over the crossings his major battle, as it symbolizes his bid to lay the basis for future Palestinian sovereignty, according to aides.

But within the Palestinian ranks, according to interviews with PLO officials, there are two approaches toward the Palestinian negotiating strategy.

The strategy promoted by Arafat gives priority to control of the crossings. The second school of thought argues that Palestinians should focus on actual control of the land of Gaza and Jericho, including the status of the Israeli settlements.

But under the terms of the peace accord, the settlements will not be discussed until the third year after the inauguration of Palestinian self-rule.

According to the second view, the maximum that the Israelis could offer now would be the inclusion of Palestinian police to monitor civilian movement - rather than security control on borders.

The major and most dangerous stumbling block, according to many Palestinian officials, is not border control but Israeli terms, or definition of troop withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel demands that the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip be connected with each other by roads to facilitate the Israeli Army's mission of maintaining their security.

Such an arrangement will give Israel the right to expropriate more Palestinian lands and control the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea - measures that Palestinians say will tear apart 10 percent of the strip and will jeopardize the final outcome of the negotiations.

If Arafat gives in on the Israeli withdrawal issue in return for some sort of control over the crossing points, he will be risking serious opposition from within the PLO, since the step could mean a de facto legitimization of Israeli settlements.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian opposition that believes that the tide is shifting in their favor, argues that it is futile for the PLO to engage in details of the accord.

``The deadlock was a logical consequence of the terms of the accord that gives Israel the right to interpret its provisions. The latest development has proven that the accord has stripped the Palestinians of invoking international law and are at the mercy of Israeli interpretations and whims,'' says Abdul Rahim Malouh, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

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