January/February 2001
Western Wall

Israeli-Palestinian Endgame

Sunday, January 7, 2001

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S bold effort to broker a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement seems, in these last days of his administration, to have degenerated into a sad exercise in public relations. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat belatedly announced his acceptance of Mr. Clinton's bridging proposal last week, but only after making clear that he rejected its most important terms. Offered sovereignty over the al-Aqsa compound atop Jerusalem's Temple Mount -- a breathtaking compromise, if Israel accepts it -- the Palestinians chose to contest the area beneath the summit, alongside Judaism's sacred Western Wall. Offered all the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Mr. Arafat complained that they were not contiguous. Faced with a proposal giving the Jordan Valley to the new Palestinian state -- another historic Israeli compromise, were it to occur -- the Palestinians quibbled over the possible inclusion of Israeli soldiers in an international monitoring force. And as if that were not enough, Mr. Arafat on Thursday won the backing of Arab leaders for his continued insistence on a "right of return" to Israel by 4 million Palestinian refugees -- a condition that, as all those leaders surely understand, will never be part of a negotiated peace settlement.

And so, barring a Middle Eastern miracle, the peace process so persistently pursued by the Clinton administration -- and so courageously embraced by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- will probably wind down in a flurry of fruitless meetings in which each side aims to persuade the world -- and especially the incoming Bush administration -- that it is not to blame. Behind the rhetoric, here is the grim scenario that Mr. Bush's new team may face: Two weeks after Mr. Clinton leaves office, Mr. Barak now appears likely to be defeated in Israeli elections by Ariel Sharon, an architect of every hardline policy Israel has pursued against the Palestinians in the last 30 years. Palestinian militants, who launched their current violent uprising last September after a provocative visit by Mr. Sharon to the Temple Mount, may escalate again. And an unsettled Arab world, populated by untested leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah and Syria's Bashar Assad, as well as a resurgent Saddam Hussein, could come under heavy popular pressure to unite against Israel for the first time since the 1973 Middle East war.

To some extent, the situation soon could come to resemble that faced by the last Bush administration, which struggled with a hostile and intransigent Israeli leadership, a Palestinian uprising and a Middle East that slid into the Persian Gulf War. But in important ways, this time around the situation will be more dangerous: The level of violence by both Israelis and Palestinians has grown, as have the casualties. Seasoned leaders on whom the last Bush administration depended, such as King Hussein of Jordan, are no longer alive. And perhaps worst of all, the peace accord that could be struck between Israelis and Palestinians, though elucidated as never before by this year's negotiations, has been tarnished by Mr. Barak's ineptness at politics, Mr. Clinton's overeagerness to conclude a deal and, most of all, by Mr. Arafat's weakness and refusal to compromise.

Perhaps Mr. Barak will somehow manage to turn around the formidable numbers against him in pre-election polls, or Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will fashion a framework to sustain negotiations into the Bush administration. If not, no doubt momentum will grow in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps for unilateral solutions. Palestinians imagine themselves declaring a state that would be recognized by European governments and the U.N. General Assembly, then steadily driving Israeli troops out of the West Bank and Gaza with Lebanese-style ambushes and bombings. Many Israelis, meanwhile, are back to talking about a strategy of "separation," under which the government would unilaterally redeploy troops and possibly settlements behind a defensible border, then seal off the Palestinians with fences and barbed wire.

These ideas are dangerous fantasies. The territories of Israel and Palestine are far too small and resource-poor, and the populations far too intermixed, for any non-negotiated solution. In the end, Palestinians and Israelis will have no choice but to agree to something very like the proposal that President Clinton has put on the table. That is why it would be particularly depressing, during the next two weeks, to watch them walk away from it.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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