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At Five Years, Mideast Peace Fizzles, Except in Jericho

Oslo accords failing as May deadline nears. A casino, however, is seen as a sign of peace.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is in New York this week. So is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Will they meet? Not likely.

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Five years after the signing of the historic Oslo peace accords, the two sides in the Mideast's most intractable conflict are in a strategic dance of nonnegotiations. Instead of face-to-face talks, Mr. Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu send signals - if at all - through emissaries.

These cold-shoulder tactics might not have meant much before Oslo. But by next May, under a deadline in the accords, the two peoples were supposed to sign a final agreement marking an end of their century-old conflict.

Also by then, the process of transferring Israeli-held territory and powers to the Palestinian Authority (PA) was to have been completed. Israel would increase its security in return for its concessions, and negotiators would tackle such lingering issues as control of East Jerusalem and the status of some 4 million Palestinians seen as refugees.

After early progress, the peace process unraveled for various reasons. One was the election of the right-wing Netanyahu. Another was that neither side felt it was getting enough of what was promised: security for Israelis, autonomy for Palestinians.

At the UN today, Mr. Arafat will try to gain support for recognition for an independent state of Palestine, which he says he will declare in May, with or without Israeli approval, if he and Mr. Netanyahu don't reach a negotiated deal first.

Netanyahu warned Thursday that a unilateral declaration of independence would sabotage the peace process. "Such actions will inevitably prompt unilateral responses on our part," he said.

In spite of such statements, some suggest the move might suit Netanyahu.

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If Arafat declares statehood and a good part of the international community accepts it, it might be easier for Netanyahu to sell it to his hard-line supporters as a done deal than it will be for him to try to maintain his slim-majority coalition while handing over chunks of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

The flip side of that scenario is that if Netanyahu rejects Arafat's state, it could mean war.

Cooperation, and division

But another way to read the news is to read wallets.

Almost five years to the day since Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace deal on the White House lawn Sept. 13, the most notable mark of cooperation between them was the opening of a glitzy new casino in the West Bank town of Jericho.

Who would invest $150 million to build a casino amid deep political uncertainty and sporadic travel closures that seal off the West Bank from Israel? People who are ignoring the gloom and expect peace.

They include Arafat and a few economic powerbrokers in his Palestinian Authority (PA). Many Israelis, too, have come out in force since the casino's opening. (Israel doesn't permit gambling.)

But the Oasis Casino is replete with complications. For starters, Palestinians are not allowed, except to work there. In a nod to religious sensitivities - Islam forbids gambling - the PA decreed to forbid entry to anyone without a foreign passport.

Many Palestinians say the flashy white compound is another example of a peace primer with no trickle-down.

Arafat may be seeking a needed income-generator, but he faced a tough choice: Bar all but foreign-passport holders and risk fueling the image of a Palestine-in-the-making as a corrupt state of haves and have-nots. Or open the casino to all Palestinians and be accused by his Islamic opposition of encouraging state-sponsored sin.

In the end he calculated that he had more to lose in the latter scenario. Arafat's seesaw relationship with Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, seems headed for another downturn. Israel killed two of the leaders in Hamas's military wing two weeks ago. As a result, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin has said the fundamentalist group would retaliate.

More bloodshed would hurt the peace process, and also force Arafat to make unpopular mass sweeps of Hamas activists. It could also put a damper on the casino, though managers say there have been no threats so far.

Jericho as money magnet

Jericho has long been a winter retreat, and even during the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising, or intifadah, its residents seemed less interested in stone-throwing than in date-farming.

Businessman Marwan Sinokrot and his brothers are funding a $10 million building project that will feature a cable car to reach the so-called Mount of Temptation and its Greek Orthodox monastery, along with a restaurant, a hotel, and souvenir shop. His target market is not Israelis but the multitude of Christian tourists.

"Businesspeople always hope for better situations," says Mr. Sinokrot, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem. "The peace process works, but it's very slow, and time is money. We should have 100 times more investment than what we have now."

To be sure, foreign investment in the Palestinian territories is far from what had been hoped for. Political uncertainty, inability to move goods freely in and out of the territories, and a lack of clear laws governing trade - as well as PA-run monopolies and bureaucratic graft - have all kept many investors away.

But Jericho's new attraction shows that leaders on both sides expect more opportunities. "If you take the long run, you can see that the process has got a certain life of its own," says Ephraim Kleiman, a Hebrew University economist who specializes in relations between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"The notion of a Palestinian state is by now accepted as a fact of life by most Israelis, like it or not. There is a problem here because the short run may be awful," he says, but investors are already trying to hedge that. "They're saying, 'If we invest too early, we may get stamped out. If we wait too long, we might miss the boat.' "

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