Milestone For Mideast Peace

Six years to the day after the historic White House handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Israelis and Palestinians are getting down to the real business of defining permanent borders.

After two false starts in May 1996 and November 1998, talks on a final peace accord were launched Monday evening with a festive ceremony at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The negotiators -- Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy -- face a daunting task.

Within five months, by Feb. 15, they will have to present the outlines of an agreement on the nature and borders of the Palestinian entity, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A full accord is supposed to be reached by September 2000.

In contrast to Palestinian optimism that an accord would be sealed by the agreed-upon deadline, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was subdued. In interviews last week, he said that if the two sides failed to reach a basic agreement by February, there was little point in pursuing a final accord.

Â"Whoever can't make a framework agreement in five months won't achieve an overall, full agreement even in five years,Â" Barak said. Instead, long-term interim agreements might have to be forged on some issues, he said.

Israeli officials have said the likely deal-breakers would be Jerusalem and the refugees.

The opening positions remain as far apart as on Sept. 13, 1993, when Israel and the PLO recognized each other with the White House handshake between Rabin and Arafat.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. They demand the repatriation of 3 million Palestinian refugees and the dismantling of settlements unwilling to remain under Palestinian sovereignty.

Israel wants to annex parts of the West Bank and Gaza to keep a majority of its 200,000 settlers under Israeli rule. Israel also says it will never relinquish parts of Jerusalem and will not permit the return of refugees to areas under its sovereignty.

A few ideas have been raised over the years, most notably in informal talks in the fall of 1995 between Abbas and Yossi Beilin, a veteran negotiator and Israel's justice minister.

Under the Beilin-Abbas blueprint -- which was never publicly acknowledged by the Palestinians -- Israel would accept the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In exchange, the Palestinians would agree to Israel's annexation of about 10 percent of the West Bank, and would drop demands to establish their capital in east Jerusalem.

Instead, a Palestinian capital would be set up in Abu Dis, a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem. Both sides would agree to talk about sovereignty in east Jerusalem at a later time.

In exchange for the annexed West Bank and -- which would bring 70 percent of the settlers under Israeli rule -- Israel would give the Palestinians some territory near the Gaza Strip.

The refugees would resettle in the Palestinian state. Those choosing to remain in neighboring Arab countries would be compensated with the help of the international community.

Beilin said at the time that the two sides felt the proposals could serve as a basis for negotiations.

However, it is unlikely such proposals will be raised in the first round Monday because opening positions are naturally tough.

Erekat reiterated Sunday that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem -- land Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.

Barak has not ruled out Palestinian statehood, but has said Israel would never return to the 1967 lines, which he considers indefensible.

In the end, both sides have strong incentives to give a little.

If no agreement can be reached, Israel will have to continue living with the threat of terror attacks, while its international standing and its peace-driven economy would likely suffer.

The Palestinians, in turn, would be left with just 40 percent of the West Bank and about two-thirds of the Gaza Strip if they declare independence unilaterally.

Expressing the shared sense of urgency, Erekat said: Â"Let's seize the opportunity. It may not come back again.Â"

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