Middle East Digest

April/May 2000

In This Issue

From the Editor

The Arab/Muslim Nazi Connection

Old Man and the Sea
IDF Leaving Lebanon After Assad Sinks Golan Deal

Oslo in a Rut
Schedule Revised, But Same Old Issues Plague Israel-PA Talks

Mixing Faith And Politics
Israel, PA Court Pope During Holy Land Tour

Viewpoint - Les Enfants Terribles

News Briefs

Middle East Hourglass


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Oslo in a Rut

Schedule Revised, But Same Old Issues Plague Israel-PA Talks

With the Syrian track running aground in Geneva in March, both US President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak turned their attention to the equally troubled Palestinian talks and its imposing set of deadlines for concluding a final peace treaty by September. The Palestinian Authority ended a six-week boycott of talks, after the US brokered a revised timetable for completing the difficult negotiations. Yet the renewed formal parleys remained unfruitful, so Clinton hosted Barak and PA chairman Yasser Arafat for separate summits at the White House in April in hopes of spurring progress. But the same recipe that doomed discussions with Damascus seems primed to repeat itself in the Oslo end game, as Israel is offering substantial concessions while the PA refuses to budge from square one.

RESETTING THE CLOCK: As February ended, US special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross spent an intense week shuttling between Barak and Arafat to try to end the PA walkout, but he left Jerusalem empty handed as the Israelis showed some give but the Palestinians were not taking. At the time, Barak handed Ross a series of concessions to convey to Arafat, but the package of gestures was rejected by the PA, which broke off talks on February 5 over disputes concerning the scope of two remaining interim IDF pullbacks in Judea/Samaria.The two sides also were quarreling over the need for completing an overdue conceptual framework agreement before tackling the thorny issues to be addressed in a final peace treaty - borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. At the heart of the standoff was a Palestinian ploy to gain control over as much of the disputed lands as possible during the interim stage – including contiguous blocks and Arab villages surrounding Jerusalem – in order to deprive Israel of any meaningful territorial bargaining chips in final-status talks and to enhance Arafat’s option of declaring a state at any time.

But the unflappable Ross swiftly returned to the region and managed to overcome differences that had stalled the tandem of interim and final-status talks for a month. Ross brought Barak and Arafat together for an uncommon trio of face-to-face meetings within 48 hours – the last one hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sinai – in which they agreed to resume official talks in late March in Washington, provided Israel first implemented the delayed 6.1% interim IDF withdrawal in Judea/Samaria. The revived talks would concentrate on drafting the framework agreement for permanent status arrangements by mid-May, while also working out the terms for the last interim IDF withdrawal to be carried out by the end of June. As the concluding step, the parties reaffirmed they would negotiate and sign by September 13 a comprehensive accord resolving all final-status issues.

To achieve the breakthrough, the PA gave in to Barak’s proposals to retain the framework accord as a useful "way station" on the road to peace and to place it (especially its guidelines on "borders") ahead of the last interim pullback. On the other hand, Arafat edged closer to greater US involvement with the stateside venue for negotiations, and also received a firm commitment from Barak to stick to the September deadline. The biggest area of contention remained over the scope of the final interim redeployment, and reports in Israel claimed Arafat accepted the revamped time frame after Barak secretly committed to handing over coveted Arab villages bordering Jerusalem – already under PA civil rule – in the June pullout.

Even with the forward movement, Barak still had his eye on a Syrian deal, while Arafat was leading a chorus of Palestinian threats to declare a state in September regardless of Israel’s opinion and to take land by force if their demands were not met. Arafat did a lot of public grumbling about how he had helped put Barak in office by postponing statehood last May, but was now suffering a huge let down over the Israeli leader. Barak is "even worse than Netanyahu," charged Arafat. Tensions stirred by the harsh PA rhetoric were compounded by Israel’s dramatic bust of a Hamas terror cell in the Israeli Arab town of Taiba – only 4 miles from Barak’s own home – and discovery of big caches of bomb-making materials in nearby Tulkarm and inside a kindergarten in Gaza.

Nonetheless, the month-long hiatus in official talks indeed ended in mid-March when the interim negotiating teams met locally to iron out lingering differences over the 6.1% withdrawal, the northern "safe passage" route and a goodwill release of Palestinian prisoners. But the hyper-sensitive Jerusalem issue rose to the fore again, just as the two sides prepared for the first round of final-status talks in Washington – and for the historic visit of Pope John Paul II.

A CAPITAL CONCERN: Barak faced a mounting domestic revolt from the nationalist camp after news surfaced he had secretly dangled the Jerusalem suburb of Anata before the PA as part of the 6.1% withdrawal. He reversed course to prevent an untimely break-up of his government, as three out of six coalition partners threatened to bolt over the miscue. The row highlighted the dilemma Barak faces in reaching a unified position on the city even with the dovish half of his government, as several key advisers and Cabinet members competed to see who could field the most attractive solution for resolving the Jerusalem question. Some argued that Israel should accept a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of the contested city and even Palestinian administration in Arab "boroughs" within its municipal boundaries, prompting Opposition MKs to counter that Israel instead needed to retain a protective ring of Jewish areas around Jerusalem. Barak criticized both sides for dragging up the extremely problematic issue so soon, since he personally favors deferring discussions over Jerusalem until after most other issues are settled in the September peace accord.

Not to be ignored, the Palestinians made clear they will not accept Abu Dis or other suburbs as a substitute capital to east Jerusalem itself. The PLO’s top figure in "Al Quds," Faisal Husseini, warned that unless they get full control of the eastern half of Israel’s capital, including the walled Old City, the Palestinians could "choose the other road" of violence. "We are so happy… they are giving the example for us," Husseini said of Hizb’Allah.

The Israeli Cabinet approved the maps for the 6.1% pullback, which Barak altered to give the PA lands closer to Jerusalem, thus giving up an important principle whereby Israel alone was allowed to designate what areas were to be ceded in the interim period. The painful pullout was swiftly carried out on the Jewish holiday of Purim. The transfer leaves Arafat with full control of 18% of Judea/Samaria, civilian control over another 21.7%, and rule over 98% of the entire Palestinian population. But as the negotiations convened for eight days of "brainstorming" at Bolling Air Force Base outside Washington under a media blackout, the developing security nightmare for Israelis due to the emerging confused patchwork of Israeli and PA controlled zones in YESHA was highlighted by a pair of shooting incidents in the Hebron Hills and roadside bombs in Gaza.

SETTLING THE SCORE: The YESHA Council concluded that Barak had breached the accord he negotiated with them immediately after his election concerning government policies on settlement growth, and decided to establish new outposts and protest the government’s "drying up" of YESHA communities and freeze on 12 bypass roads deemed essential by the IDF. The Israeli High Court provided the last straw, when it ruled that 700 seasonal Arab cave-dwellers could temporarily return to the disputed Maon Farm area, where young settler activists were forcefully evicted last November. The Council demanded that Jews be permitted to return to Maon as well, and moved in equipment there and at other sites to erect new Jewish neighborhoods in approved planning areas. In an instant replay, IDF soldiers again evacuated a group of settlers from Havat Maon.

Barak is hemmed in between the pro-settlement camp, which is threatening to topple his government over any further land concessions - especially around Jerusalem - and the Palestinian side, which reportedly is preparing a military response in conjunction with its plans for declaring a Palestinian state if peace talks do not win them control over all YESHA by September. One PA official warned, "If the talks fail, there is no guarantee that the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not turn into a swamp" – another chilling Palestinian allusion to Hizb’Allah’s successful formula in Lebanon for forcing an Israeli retreat.

TWIN BILLING: The dynamics of the Palestinian track changed dramatically in the wake of Clinton’s failed Geneva summit with Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in late March. With a second round of sequestered talks already plodding away in Washington, Clinton hurriedly summoned Barak to the White House to see if a final Israeli-Palestinian accord was a faster route to a Nobel peace prize. Though the gaps seem far more intractable and perplexing than the few hundred meters of Kinneret shoreline now separating Jerusalem and Damascus, Barak nonetheless deposited with Clinton some significant concessions to deliver to Arafat, whose own meeting at the White House had been moved up a week to April 20.

As Barak outlined for his Cabinet both before and after his Washington trip, he was ready to offer recognition of a Palestinian state in Gaza and on a contiguous area totaling 70-80% of Judea/Samaria – including Arab villages bordering Jerusalem – on condition that the PA agree to Israeli annexation of the 10% where the largest Jewish settlement blocs are located. The Palestinian "entity" would also have to be demilitarized; Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty; and Arab refugees would not be permitted to return to Israel. Barak’s frontal approach on the "statehood" question was a bid to preempt a violent showdown with Arafat come September by tying down the issue in a section of the May framework agreement. In addition, he "sweetened" the framework deal by proposing that it include an early down-payment of about 3% of the last interim IDF pullback due in June.

But he was merely bargaining with himself, as the unimpressed Palestinian leadership rejected his conditions and offers outright – even before Clinton shared them with Arafat in person – insisting they expect nothing short of complete surrender of 100% of the disputed lands, including east Jerusalem. Arafat fully explained to Clinton his decision to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood in September, but received no promises regarding American recognition. At about the same time, he openly ridiculed Barak as "the leader of the extremists" and dismissed the on-going talks as "just chat sessions" and "a waste of time." [Arafat, by the way, has just escaped prosecution in Germany for his involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, as Berlin decided it did not want to disrupt the peace process.]

The disparate attitudes of the two leaders matched recent press reports about the official lower-level talks, which maintain that Israel has been making serious offers, but the Palestinians are summarily rejecting them and refusing to budge from their maximal demands. These were contained in a document described as the "Five No’s" – a play on the infamous "Three No’s" following the 1973 Yom Kippur War – and include: an Israeli withdrawal from 90% of Judea/Samaria by June; the right of return for all Palestinian refugees from 1948; the removal of all Jewish settlements; PA control over all of eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City; and no Israeli military presence inside the Palestinian state.

ALL TAPPED OUT: Currently, US and Israeli officials see eye-to-eye in their belief it is still possible to complete the framework by the end of June, and the final peace treaty by September, but that much depends on Arafat’s willingness to compromise somewhere. Otherwise, the same formula that led to the Geneva fiasco with Assad seems destined to play out in the Palestinian talks too, as Israel is offering significant concessions while PA positions remain "very rigid" – according to the unusually candid and sober evaluation of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. With the listless pace of progress, Clinton’s presidential muscle waning and Arafat showing no signs of flexibility, Oslo is in the same rut just traveled by the flat-lined Syrian track and it looks increasingly doubtful the parties will meet the very tight time line just ahead.

Indeed, several senior PA officials have echoed the newest Palestinian mantra in recent days, contending that they have nothing new to offer, since they had gone as far as they could simply by recognizing Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords. [Never mind that the original Oslo deal actually saw Israel extricate Arafat’s PLO from a political and financial wasteland. Ed.] According to the PLO’s number two man, Mahmoud Abbas, "we will be unable to take more painful decisions."

Ross and his US peace team will now directly participate in the next round of negotiations in Eilat from April 30 to May 12, and will be "pushing each side to fully explain their position." Meanwhile, the parties acknowledge other channels are also being used besides the official route. But as departing US State Department spokesman James Rubin quipped recently, the upcoming talks are "a complicated piece of business."

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