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Middle East: Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Seek To Build Confidence

U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat are in Oslo today for the second and final day of a summit intended to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what is likely to emerge from the meetings.

Prague, 2 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet in Oslo, they are trying to use potent symbolism to give new momentum to the Middle East peace process.

But despite a flurry of meetings, many analysts feel there is little likelihood that any groundbreaking agreement will emerge from the sessions.

Instead, the two days in Oslo are likely to be more important for the confidence they build between the parties at a time when initial Palestinian excitement over the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is waning.

Analysts say that the timing of the meetings is important because the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has advanced enough in the months since Barak's victory to arrive at a major turning point, beyond which new progress will extremely demanding.

Since coming to office, Barak has resumed carrying out last year's Wye accord, including transferring land to the Palestinians, releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and opening a safe-passage route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that lie on opposite sides of Israel.

But that has merely cleared the way for both sides to now face the truly tough issues in their peace process, known as the "final status" questions. These questions -- which must be solved to reach any permanent and lasting peace -- include what to do about Israeli settlements, what to do about Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their natural capital.

Barak's government and the Palestinian Authority took a big step down the road toward the final status issues two months ago, when they said they would seek to forge a permanent peace agreement by next September. The sides further raised the stakes yesterday, by saying they would begin their talks on the final status issues next week, aiming at a final status accord framework by February.

But despite all the promises and raising of stakes, months have slipped by without the opening of actual negotiations -- suggesting that both sides may need a boost of confidence to get under way.

Analysts say that is why Barak and Arafat have flown to Oslo, even though Barak's office in Jerusalem and Arafat's in the West Bank town of Ramallah are only 15 kilometers apart. Both sides are there to get reassurances that Washington will continue to play a catalytic role in the peace process.

Fred Tanner is an analyst who closely follows the Mideast peace process at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He says Barak needs Washington to remain central to the peace process for domestic reasons, as Barak moves cautiously forward on the "peace with security" plan that was his campaign promise. Fred Tanner says:

"I think he will need the United States for domestic consumption. [There are] opponents to certain items of what Barak tries to do, such as slow down the pace of settlements ... it's very helpful that the United States is involved in that. So it's also for domestic balancing of certain, let's say opponents, that the United States can play an important role."

Tanner says Barak must show the Israeli public that there are tangible benefits to his program, some of which are financial and can only come from the United States. Washington also recognizes this -- it promised a financial package as part of the implementation of the Wye agreement.

Arafat, for his part, wants Washington to help advocate his position in negotiations with the much stronger Israeli side. Tanner says:

"Israel is a powerful state and the Palestinians are on the much weaker side, and they rely very much on support from third parties, in this case from the United States. ... I have the impression that the Americans at [this] stage are probably more useful to the Palestinians than they would be to the Israelis."

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders are counting on the potent symbolism of meeting in Oslo to generate confidence not only between them but among their publics at home.

Oslo is where a small Norwegian team managed to get the Israelis and Palestinians together for secret talks in 1993. That led to the signing of a peace deal creating a Palestinian entity in exchange for security guarantees.

Oslo is also where two former Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat shared a Nobel Peace Prize five years ago.

The leaders of the Middle East peace process meeting in Oslo today paid homage to the late Rabin, slain four years ago this week by an enemy of his peace policies.

While most attention at Oslo now is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, many analysts feel another, quieter subject on the agenda may be prospects for re-starting peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Barak has frequently said he wants to withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon by July and intends to do it through talks with Damascus as the main power broker in Lebanon.

But so far, Israel and Syria have yet to get beyond the stage of mutually signaling they are ready to resume talking. Formal talks broke off in early 1996 amid a dispute over the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.