The Palestinians have found in Israel the ultimate haggling partner: Israel keeps raising the price it will pay without the Palestinians ever having to make a counteroffer. To say this "gives the peace process a bad name" is the understatement of the year.
The Camp David ground rules supposedly were that nothing was agreed upon until everything was agreed upon. This principle protects both sides, since they ostensibly can be flexible without the other side pocketing concessions without making concessions of their own. When Camp David broke up without agreement, Barak and Clinton reiterated the idea that what ever happened there was "null and void." Now Israel seems hell bent on violating this principle to its own detriment.
Assuming that a comprehensive agreement is not possible in the next few days, all that is possible is a vague document that attempts to preserve the "achievements" of the negotiations to date.
Such a document will inevitably become the opening Palestinian position in any future negotiation. The only possible purpose such a document could have from an Israeli perspective is a highly political one: to bind a future Israeli government to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement along the lines of the Clinton parameters. This would be a political goal, because it would attempt to ensure the failure of a possible Sharon government before that government is elected.
The profoundly anti-democratic act of pursuing such critical negotiations without the shadow of a mandate would thus be compounded: negotiations not only for the sake of influencing elections, but to pre-topple the next government.
If, despite all odds, a comprehensive agreement were reached, the situation would be even worse. The people of Israel would be presented with a terrible choice: an agreement so extreme and so riddled with ambiguously resolved claims that it would guarantee perpetuation of the conflict, or voting to "reject peace," with all the potential for violence and isolation that such a choice entails.
Ramon, who has never been accused of lacking political instincts, perhaps senses that the public increasingly considers negotiations under such conditions to be wrong and reckless. If, as some speculate, the negotiations are being held to placate those on the Left who are threatening to cast blank ballots, then Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein's fears of the use of diplomacy for electoral purposes have been confirmed.
It would take the political equivalent of a saint to conduct negotiations now without being influenced by electoral considerations, and there is little evidence that Barak is so pure. If Barak were only putting his own political future at risk, it would be one thing; but Israel as a nation will be held accountable for every comma he offers at the negotiating table.
Now that Bill Clinton is the husband of the junior senator from New York, and Ehud Barak seems headed toward being the shortest-serving elected prime minister in Israel's history, there is simply no excuse for continuing negotiations before the election 15 days from now.
Yasser Arafat said no at Camp David, he reinforced that no by launching a shooting war against Israel, and he has rejected the Clinton parameters. According to a Palestinian source who spoke with this newspaper, the two dozen Palestinian reservations to Clinton's plan amount to one thing: "In fact, we have rejected the plan." The only basis for talking to the Palestinians now is if Israel is willing to go even further than the Clinton parameters, in which case an agreement will be soundly rejected by Israelis.
If Barak wants to do something that is right, democratic, and will help him electorally, he should say that the people of Israel know the kind of agreement he stands for and if they want it they should vote for him. If Barak is returned to office and the Palestinians are sincere about peace, there will be plenty of time to negotiate an agreement without the sword of an election over the head of Israel's leader. It may already be too late for Barak to convince the public that he has a scintilla of respect for democratic principles, but the longer his negotiators remain in Taba the harder that task will be.