July/August 2000

The Oslo Interlude

By Charles Krauthammer

Tuesday , July 11, 2000

Why did President Clinton call today's hasty high-risk Camp David summit? Some are attributing this to Clinton's hunger for a legacy. Hungry he is, but I cannot believe that a president would so trifle with American standing in the Middle East for entirely selfish reasons.

Why then?

Because Yasser Arafat had presented Clinton and the world with a deadline: On Sept. 13, the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, a rupture of the Oslo peace accords that they openly acknowledge may lead to violence, perhaps even war. This summit is being held, quite literally, under the gun.

Why Sept. 13?

Because Arafat has taken the view that the Oslo accords expire on that day.

Under the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Israel and the PLO recognized each other, mutually pledged an end to violence and war and laid out a multiyear timetable of negotiations. Sept. 13 is the latest in a series of target dates for the conclusion of these negotiations. The Palestinians now claim that if there is no final agreement by then, they are released from their obligations under Oslo, including the prohibition against unilaterally declaring statehood.

What Westerners do not quite grasp, however, is that for Arafat the end of Oslo means not just statehood but a release from the very core of Oslo, the pledge of peace. It marks a return to the pre-Oslo status of belligerency with Israel.

True, Arafat will not declare war on Day One. He will not send his guerrillas back into Israel on Day One. He may not even encourage the mass demonstrations against Israeli settlements that Palestinians have spoken about for Day One, which would inevitably provoke an Israeli reaction and rekindle the violence.

But he and his lieutenants have long talked of looking beyond the Oslo interlude. They speak openly of their expectation of confrontation and violence when they declare independence. Arafat himself has repeatedly told his people that Oslo is but a means to achieve Palestinian goals. If Oslo doesn't get them there, they have other means. His people know precisely what he means by other means.

This notion of the transient and contingent nature of Oslo is totally contrary to the American understanding. First, because Sept. 13, like the dozens of other negotiating target dates, was never more than that: a target date.

And second, because the whole premise of Oslo was that Israel would make irrevocable concessions to the Palestinians in return for a single irrevocable change by the Palestinians: a transition from conflict to peaceful negotiations.

Israel has indeed made staggering concessions. It oversaw the creation of the first self-governing authority in Palestinian history; it gave international recognition to the PLO and orchestrated the granting of huge amounts of aid; it released hundreds of prisoners, including many guilty of terrorist violence; it gave Arafat control of almost half the West Bank and almost all of Gaza.

Arafat's strategy from the beginning is now quite clear. He would pocket whatever Israel gave, hold out in negotiations for his maximalist demands, and, when the target date for their completion was missed, seize the opportunity to declare the whole process over and to resume the struggle with Israel.

The idea of Oslo not as a new era of peace but an interlude between two periods of war will come as a shock to many who witnessed the Great Handshake on the White House Lawn seven years ago. It should not. Arafat has explicitly analogized Oslo to the 10-year treaty Mohammed made with the Quraysh tribe. It too marked an interlude. Two years later, when the tactical necessity had passed, the treaty was broken and the Quraysh were attacked and defeated.

Ehud Barak is coming to Camp David prepared to make huge concessions. He is, for example, ready to redivide control of Jerusalem, after declaring it would be Israel's eternal and indivisible capital. He is, for example, ready to give up the largely uninhabited Jordan Valley, which for 35 years all parties in Israel had agreed was absolutely necessary to prevent an Arab tank invasion from the east.

Arafat? He has not moved an inch in his demands: statehood, East Jerusalem, 100 percent of the West Bank and the right of return of Palestinian refugees (which would swamp Israel demographically and instantly destroy the Jewish state). That was Arafat's position in September 1993 on the White House lawn. It is his position today as he goes to Camp David.

In seven years, no change. Why should he? If Arafat holds out for his demands, Oslo will expire, he claims. Then he can pocket his gains, declare his state and prepare for the final struggle.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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