THE OSLO PROCESS RETURNS TO ITS CRADLE

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and US President Bill Clinton have all arrived in Oslo for a three-way summit to mark the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death and to explore their next moves in the peace process birthed in secret once upon a time in this Norwegian capital.

Clinton is to hold separate meetings with Barak and Arafat today, and then convene a three-way gathering on Tuesday. Tomorrow’s agenda also includes a ceremony in memory of Rabin, whom Clinton has called “one of the great heroes of this century.”

Clinton and other US officials have been downplaying expectations of any dramatic developments on substantive issues out of the rendezvous, arranged at the request of Leah Rabin to honor her late husband and former Nobel peace prize winner.

But the three leaders are sure to confront head-on an urgent problem of their own creation — how to achieve a final resolution of this long-standing conflict in two short steps between now and next September.

“There are tremendous challenges ahead,” Clinton said Sunday. “I will do everything I can to help because peace in the Middle East is strongly in the interest of the American people.”

Arafat comes into Oslo wanting to win assurances from Clinton that Israel will freeze settlement construction during the final-status talks. The US has declared settlements “destructive” to peace, but has yet to reprimand Barak for allowing settlement activity to proceed at a faster pace than under his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu. Still, Arafat has been careful not to make a settlement freeze an absolute pre-condition for entering final-status talks.

Barak, in turn, has been trumpeting lately his vision of a “separation” of the two peoples in the conflict, apparently viewing the initial Oslo dream as unattainable in the light of the current harsh realities of the Middle East. This has caused some alarm in the Palestinian camp and among US peacemakers, as the PA’s economy stands to only decline if isolated from Israel, leading to further de-stabilization in the region.

They also face differences on the format of the final-status talks. Arafat expects Clinton to play an active role, an invitation Clinton may find hard to refuse as he seeks a grand foreign policy achievement to salvage a lasting presidential legacy. Barak would prefer one-on-one talks with the Palestinian leader to quickly flesh out the outline of a peace treaty by the February deadline.

In an interesting spin, HA’ARETZ today is featuring — actually recycling — an idea that Barak will use the visit to offer Arafat Israeli recognition of a future Palestinian state in certain areas of Judea/Samaria and Gaza in exchange for such tangible concessions as Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem. The reciprocal diplomatic recognitions reportedly would be included as part of the framework agreement for permanent status scheduled for conclusion in February 2000

Barak reportedly is concerned that any final agreements must be made between equal nation-states for them to be legally binding. All the interim Oslo agreements so far have been made between Israel, a state, on the one hand - and the PLO, a liberation movement, and the PA, a temporary entity, on the other.

The two-stage process laid down in the recent Sharm e-Sheik accords apparently provides a way to solve this question of legality. A Palestinian state will be the first article mentioned in the framework agreement to be signed in February, allowing Arafat to declare independence within temporary borders next September. The draft treaty hammered out in negotiations by then will be put to Israeli voters in a national referendum.

Barak reportedly wants the framework agreement to include several key points:


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