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Inching closer to healing Israeli and Palestinian rift

Albright arrived in Egypt yesterday to cap a deal that revives the Wye

When asked about Israeli politics, many Palestinians tend to repeat a clich: They see the Labor and Likud parties as "two sides of the same coin."

Many people would not agree with that comment - including the Israelis and American sponsors of the peace process, and even Palestinians who first carved out a deal with Israel in 1993. But as these people try to hammer out another agreement, the clich may hold some validity after all: They're quickly finding that forging peace may prove almost as painstaking under Israel's new Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak, as it did under his hard-line predecessor, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been working for weeks to reach an agreement on how to resume implementing the Wye River accord of last year. They may ink a deal today in Alexandria, Egypt, according to Israeli media. One of the key aspects of the deal is handing over more land in the West Bank to Palestinian control. The key sticking point, however, has been the release of some Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. In hopes of concluding the agreement, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in Alexandria yesterday.

Some say Mr. Barak, a military man for whom Israel's security has been his life's work, sees the 1993 Oslo accords that his Labor Party forebears left him as an inherently flawed deal in need of more than a little tinkering. Critics in the Israeli media have chalked up Barak's insistence on renegotiating the Wye deal to intellectual hubris, to a national disorder in which every new leader feels the need to put his own imprint on the accords.

But others say that the recent difficulties - and those that lie ahead - should be attributed less to persona and more to the process itself. The fact that the most complex and sensitive issues were postponed until the "final status" agreement means that the negotiations have been in for a combustible finale. Yet to be solved are emotion-riven matters like the status of Jerusalem and the fate of 3 million to 4 million Palestinian refugees, who want a right of return that Israelis consider to be out of the question.

"The difficulty is not because of personality but because this was expected to be the toughest stage of negotiations," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute. "So it's a mistake to compare [former Prime Minister Shimon] Peres's flexibility in the beginning of the process to toughness at end, and say it's a personality change."

Under Netanyahu, adds Mr. Ezrahi, "toughness was used as a posture to legitimize non-agreement. Now, toughness is part of a position that comes with serious intentions to make peace. People have to get used to the same word meaning different things."

But Palestinians seem to feel far less sure about Barak's intentions than Israelis imagine them to be. Samih Muhsin of LAW, a Palestinian human rights group, says Palestinians are judging whether they should restore faith in making peace with Israel - and in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's ability to bring home tangible results.

Where Israel sees terrorists, Palestinians see prisoners of war, and question whether they will be held as bargaining chips. "We believe that Israel will keep these prisoners in order to exert political pressure on the Palestinians in order to gain concessions from the negotiators," Mr. Muhsin says at LAW's offices near Ramallah in the West Bank.

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As part of the latest deal, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are agreeing to set a new deadline for reaching a final-status agreement: September 2000.

The new deadline could be a boon for both sides, officials say. Barak would accelerate talks, as he had hoped, giving him ample time to get Israel acclimated to new realities well ahead of the next election. And Arafat, by this time next year, would get his day in the sun - the right to declare a Palestinian state with Israel's approval.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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