Middle East Crisis Headlines - 1/28/2001
Israel and the Palestinians concluded six days of peace talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba without an agreement, ending any hope of a breakthrough before Israeli elections on February 6th. However, the sides issued a joint statement saying there was "significant progress." "The Palestinians and Israelis have never been closer to an agreement," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami at a Taba news conference. "There is no agreement in our hands but there is a platform, there is a base that will let us reach an agreement after the elections in Israel." The Palestinians were not as optimistic. "There is still a big gap on everything," said the Palestinian team leader, parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia. "Nothing had been achieved on the refugee issue...This is a fierce battle, a battle which has two red lines - one set by us and, unfortunately, one set by them. If they will not recognize the right of return, there would be no progress." The negotiators discussed four main issues in Tabaâ€”Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, final borders and security.
While both sides said they build a foundation for negotiations after the elections, that does not take into account that opposition leader Ariel Sharon will be probably be elected. Sharon has already made it clear that heâ€™ll be playing by a different set of rules. "What we see now...are steps endangering Israel for the sake of some paper, some document or declaration that may help in the elections," Sharon told an electoral rally in the town of Bat-Yam near Tel Aviv. "When the people of Israel learn what's in that paper, what Mr. Barak gave away and is ready to abandon, it won't bring him more votes." As for the prospect of Sharonâ€™s election, Ahmed Qureia told the Taba news conference that "We never and we will not be able to choose with whom we will negotiate from the Israeli side."
So the Palestinians will negotiate with Sharon, but the Israeli offers are likely to be much less generous than they are today. In an effort to push the peace process ahead, efforts are underway to arrange a meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Sweden on Tuesday or Wednesday. Israeli sources said Barak had not yet decided whether to go to Stockholm, and was weighing how being seen at Arafat's side would affect his already slim chances of overcoming Sharon's 16 to 18 percentage point lead in the polls. What could further hurt Barak is word of major concessions at the Taba talks. While details were not disclosed, leaks from the talks indicate that Israel would relinquish 96 percent of Judea and Samaria, while annexing major Jewish settlement blocs near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There would also be a land swap that would give the Palestinians an equivalent amount of territory annexed by Israel. Israel is also considering dismantling more than 100 Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Jordan Valley!
The powerful Histadrut Labor federation is stepping up sanctions in a wage dispute with the government. A full public sector strike could take place tomorrow that would effectively shut down the country. Today, sanctions are causing disruptions at the airport and seaports, and rail services. Some 400,000 public sector workers would be involved in a full strike that would effect government hospitals, telephone and postal services, government offices, air and seaports, among others. Such strikes occur in Israel on the average of once or twice a year. Critics say the Histadrut is a vestige of the old and unproductive Israeli socialism, where the government is far too involved in the economy. The Histadrut is demanding a 16 percent wage hike, the same increase that well-paid Knesset members voted for themselves.