May/June 2000

Arafat's Parallel Universe

By Gerald M. Steinberg

(June 8) - In less than a year, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have racked up thousands of frequent-flyer miles, but that is all that they have accomplished. The traveling circus has stopped in Jericho, Washington (Bolling Air Force base, to be precise), Ramallah, Jerusalem, Eilat, Stockholm, and various other sites, but appears to be going nowhere.

The problem is clearly not the location - wherever the negotiators meet, the circular debates are the same. The real problem is that while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators may be in the same room from time to time, politically, they are still in two parallel political universes.

For Ehud Barak, the negotiations are focused on efforts to reach workable compromises on specific issues - Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and settlements. The assumption, apparently shared by the Clinton Administration (although we can never be sure), is that while these are indeed complex and difficult issues, satisfactory technical solutions can be found.

However, Arafat and the Palestinians are involved in an entirely different process. Throughout the negotiations, they have not put any realistic proposals on the table with regard to the issue of Jerusalem, borders, or settlements. While every public statement includes a repetition of the Palestinian demands on these issues, these are strictly designed for outside consumption. All the moves designed to reach compromise solutions are based on Israeli or American initiatives.

In reality, Arafat and other Palestinian officials have three completely different priorities in these negotiations. These are "the right of return for the refugees," the release of remaining Palestinian prisoners (all of whom are convicted and unrepentant terrorists with "blood on their hands"), and, most urgently, the insistence on a major Israeli redeployment before a permanent-status agreement.

The unavoidable conclusion is that for Arafat and the Palestinians, peace with Israel and the end to the Arab-Israeli conflict are simply not on the agenda. The effort to flood Israel with refugees (who have been used for decades as political pawns), and to give legitimacy to terrorists who vow to continue "the war against the Jews," go against the direction needed to end, or even reduce the level of conflict.

Instead, these policies demonstrate that the ideology of rejectionism that has dominated Arab and Palestinian political life for decades has not changed. The demand for more territory immediately is entirely consistent with Arafat's goal of creating as large a state as possible, while also avoiding the ideological concessions necessary in the context of a peace treaty with Israel.

The clash between these entirely different agenda and goals was highlighted on May 15. On this day, which commemorates the "catastrophe" (Nakba) in the Arab world, the Palestinians began carefully planned gun battles designed to demonstrate that the neither the goals nor the tactics of 1947 have changed. This was also the day that Ehud Barak chose to push the approval to transfer Abu Dis and two other Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem through the Knesset.

This combination - a Palestinian army, created on the basis of the Oslo "peace" agreement, taking aim at Israelis, while the Israeli government prepares to hand over territory in Jerusalem to the nascent Palestinian state - was totally incongruous. Even the truest of Israeli believers in peace and reconciliation could not accept the absurdity of this scene.

Seven years after Oslo, many have finally recognized that the main obstacles to peace are not Israeli policies, or differences over borders and Jerusalem but rather, the unchanging rejection of the concept of compromise on the Palestinian side.

Meanwhile, Dennis Ross, Madeleine Albright and the rest of Clinton team continue to jump back and forth across the parallel dimensions between Barak and Arafat. Perhaps the Americans cling to the hope that despite the deep hatreds and animosity, the web of agreements will channel the conflict to less violent forms.

At the same time, the more cynical explanation cannot be ignored. After eight years in office, and an incredible amount of time devoted to Middle East peace efforts, another spectacular signing ceremony, and perhaps even a Nobel Prize, are still very tempting. Having failed in the Syrian-Israeli talks, for the same reasons, they cling to the only remaining option.

However, the reality is that with Israel and the Palestinians on two entirely different tracks, more Israeli concessions and compromises are pointless and even counterproductive. No last-minute summit in Washington, no Israeli concessions on borders and on Jerusalem, and no "compensatory package" of military assistance and money, will alter these fundamental facts. As any elementary student of geometry knows, parallel lines do not intersect, and the same rule holds true for parallel political universes.

© 2000 - The Jerusalem Post

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