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Palestinian trust key to Israel security

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As Israel's new Prime Minister Ehud Barak forms his first government he must also deal with a Middle East that has some enticing possibilities for peacemaking - and is also full of risk. The most evident possibilities are those related to a land-for-peace deal with Syria, where President Hafez al-Asad has exchanged encouraging signals with Mr. Barak in recent weeks.

The risks are mainly those related to further stagnation - or worse - in the Palestinian situation. Five-and-a-half years after the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), many Palestinians judge that their negotiators there won them a badly flawed deal.

The PLO agreed at Oslo to enter an open-ended, five-year interim phase, in which most of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza could exercise partial self-government. Israelis and their friends had long argued such an interim phase could build the confidence that would later enable the parties to negotiate final-status arrangements.

The five-year interim ended May 4 - and far from increasing, the Palestinians' confidence in the peace process has instead been massively eroded. What happened?

*The Palestinians saw a hard-line Israeli government under outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stall repeatedly in the negotiations. As a result, the final-status situation that was supposed to begin in May has not even started to be discussed seriously at the negotiating table.

*The Palestinians, meanwhile, saw Mr. Netanyahu's government transforming West Bank geography by building modern highways to link the Israeli settlements to a network of enhanced economic opportunity, while choking the Palestinians' self-ruled cities off from each other, and from their natural hinterlands.

*The Palestinians judged that the US - sponsor of the peace talks - never exacted any real price from Netanyahu for these actions. Many Palestinians feel bitter, too, that PLO leader Yasser Arafat seemed to acquiesce to Netanyahu. The result?

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