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Although Talks Continue, Support For Israeli-PLO Accord Wanes

Negotiations to realize `dawn of new era' take longer than expected

SIX months ago, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat flanked President Clinton on the lawn of the White House, and heard the US leader declare ``the dawn of a new era.''

By April 13, however, the day that Israeli troops were meant to have completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho under the terms of the White House agreement, that dawn had still not broken.

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Israeli troops have not withdrawn. And the detailed accord giving Palestinians limited autonomy in Gaza and Jericho - that should have been ready four months ago - is still being negotiated in Cairo.

On April 13, even those negotiations were not going to happen.

By an ironic coincidence, the day that was to herald a brave new future is also the day that Israelis mark as Memorial Day, in honor of their soldiers who died in past wars.

The mood is grim both in Israel and in the occupied territories. Mr. Arafat, in his speech at the White House celebrating the signing of the Palestinian framework peace treaty with Israel, warned that ``we will need more courage and determination to continue the course.'' But few could have anticipated just how rough that course would be.

Recurrent outbursts of violence by both sides have soured the atmosphere and delayed negotiations to the point where many observers have come to doubt whether peace is really at hand.

``The entire process has got a negative dynamic, and that is a major problem,'' says Danny Rubinstein, who covers the occupied territories for the daily Haaretz. ``There is more violence, more bitterness, and more suffering, instead of more patience and more understanding. That makes many, many people on both sides much more pessimistic.''

After months of painstaking negotiations, mainly over the security of Jewish settlers who will remain in autonomous Palestinian areas, Palestinians are wondering what Israel has in mind for the future.

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``Israel does not behave like a state that has made a decision to withdraw,'' complains Azmi Bishara, professor of Philosophy at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. ``They are bargaining over every point to such a degree that you don't just lose your appetite, you wonder whether this is a step [toward a final settlement] or a model of how they will be with us for a long time.''

Dr. Bishara has never been an enthusiast of the PLO's deal with Israel, arguing like many Palestinians that it compromised too many of the Palestinians' historic demands.

But even prominent supporters of the peace process, such as Zuheira Kamal, a leader of the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) faction of the PLO, are losing faith. Over the past six months, she says, ``the more I am knowing [of the Israelis] the less trustful I am becoming.''

Those misgivings are shared by the Israelis too. Furious at what he saw as backsliding by Arafat after a December 1993 summit, Mr. Rabin instructed his negotiators not to be satisfied with verbal agreements, but to put all accords down in writing.

Few steps have shaken Palestinian confidence in Israel recently more than the April 10 Cabinet decision to ban indefinitely all Palestinians from entering Israel and to recruit 18,000 foreign workers to replace Palestinian laborers.

Designed as a security measure in the wake of a Palestinian car bomb attack that killed seven Israelis on April 6, the closure will wreak havoc with the Palestinian economy, leaving thousands of families with no income.

In the Gaza Strip, says economist Salah Abdul-Shafi simply, the situation is ``disastrous.''

Public opinion in favor of the peace talks, meanwhile, has fallen steadily on both sides since last September, when over 60 percent of Israelis and Palestinians supported the agreement. Today, hardly 40 percent still back the talks, according to recent polls.

And among Palestinian supporters of the process, most of them ``no longer accept it as the only way to independence, but accept it because they cannot do anything against it,'' Bishara says. ``There is a big difference.''

In the light of how long it is taking to reach an autonomy agreement for Gaza and Jericho, doubts are growing about the prospects for autonomy throughout the West Bank, which was meant to blossom in mid-July with elections in the occupied territories for a Palestinian council.

Autonomy in the West Bank, which is dotted with Jewish settlements, will be ``much more complicated'' than in Gaza and Jericho, Rabin told The Jerusalem Post in an interview to mark Israel's independence day April 14.

Some experts are beginning to wonder whether the problems might not prove too complicated to solve.

``I don't see a real chance of implementing a deal in the West Bank,'' Mr. Rubinstein frets. ``I think it will be just Gaza and Jericho for a long time.''

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