Delays and Posturing Follow New Pact Aimed at Final-Status Deal in One Year

As part of the recently-concluded interim accord signed at Sharm e-Sheik, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat set an ambitious timetable to conclude a final-status agreement on their long-standing conflict by next September. But that deadline appears unrealistic after some early delays and the two leaders opted to declare irreconcilable “red lines” to their respective domestic audiences.

THE SHARM MEMORANDUM: Overcoming a last-minute war of nerves, Israel and the PA concluded a new, presumably final, interim agreement at the Sinai resort town in early September. The deal clarified outstanding issues under the Wye accords and committed the parties to “accelerated” permanent status talks aimed at reaching a final agreement by September 2000. The bargain was tested immediately by twin car bombings in northern Israel, but Israel’s punctual implementation of its initial commitments signalled it was full speed ahead for the risky land-for-peace Oslo process.

When US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in the region two months ago, the parties were deadlocked over modifying Wye and publicly exchanging taunts over who was to blame. Barak issued an ultimatum — if an agreement was not reached within “the next few hours,” he would implement the original Wye “by the letter.” Presumably, this meant interim withdrawals and prisoner releases at Israel’s sole discretion.

The prisoner issue was proving the most difficult to finesse, with Israel offering to release 348 “security prisoners,” while the Palestinians demanded the release of 400 inmates. Minister of Regional Development Shimon Peres described the margin as significant, saying any releases above 350 would require Israel to free Palestinians with “blood on their hands.”

The second sticking point involved a gap of several months in proposed target dates for completing a framework agreement for permanent status (FAPS) and then concluding those final-status talks. But press reports suddenly indicated the gaps had closed and a signing ceremony was imminent. On September 4 at Sharm e-Sheik, Barak and Arafat signed the modified version of Wye as Albright, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II looked on.

As details emerged, it appeared Albright had managed to broker a compromise on the prisoner release issue, along with a framework linking interim withdrawals to target dates for final-status talks. One outstanding issue had threatened to hold up the deal at the last minute – a dispute over language in Wye prohibiting unilateral acts that would alter the status of disputed areas of Judea/Samaria and Gaza. Apparently, the Palestinians were looking to expressly reserve the right to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood, without Israeli consent, in future.

The outline of the new deal called for a final number of 350 Palestinian prisoners to be released by Israel, in two stages. A “side agreement” provided for more possible releases later. Israel agreed to release pre-Oslo PLO prisoners with “some blood on their hands,” meaning those who have wounded Israelis or murdered Palestinian collaborators, or have been indirectly involved in terrorist acts. No Hamas or Islamic Jihad prisoners were to be freed short of a conclusive peace settlement.

The agreement fixed three stages of interim Israeli territorial withdrawals totalling 11 percent of Judea/Samaria, to be completed by January 20, 2000. Other provisions dictated that negotiations would begin immediately towards the goal of establishing within five months the framework for final-status talks. After the FAPS is achieved, discussions will continue towards a final peace settlement on the most sensitive issues between the parties — refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and the boundaries of any future Palestinian entity — to be completed no later than September 13, 2000.

Other lingering issues were resolved, such as “safe passage” routes, construction of the Gaza seaport, and delicate adjustments required in the Hebron protocols. The new pact made no mention of the principle of reciprocity, the sequential nature of obligations, or Oslo-mandated reductions in Palestinian police forces and confiscation of illegal weapons.

AN ABRUPT TEST: No sooner had the ink dried on the new accord than synchronized car bombs rocked the northern Israeli cities of Tiberias and Haifa, killing three Arab terrorists. Hamas was immediately suspected, as the attacks mimicked past terrorist operations timed to coincide with major breakthroughs in the peace process or visits by key American envoys. PA figures rushed to condemn the blasts, but all eyes were on Barak and whether he would take the same line as his mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, who often called for accelerating the peace process in response to such terrorist bombings.

Barak’s cabinet was in session when the news came, and he emerged pledging to press on. But results of investigations into the dual bombings shocked the public, as the three dead bodies were identified as Israeli Arabs from small Galilee villages. Israeli security forces admitted surprise at the apparent extent of ties between the Islamic Movement inside Israel and Hamas. Casualties were low since both time bombs detonated an hour earlier than expected, apparently rigged in Palestinian areas still on summer time and then handed over to Arab accomplices in Israel – which already had reset clocks to winter time.

Nonetheless, the Israeli Knesset approved the first stage of Sharm by a 54-23 vote, allowing Barak to release 199 Palestinian prisoners and hand over maps to the PA outlining the next 7% (nearly 400 square kilometers) of land ceded to Palestinian civilian rule. The prisoners signed pledges not to revert to violence and were loaded onto buses bound for three PA cities – Gaza City, Ramallah and Hebron. There they were promptly given guns “for their own protection” and recruited by Arafat into the PA security forces, in violation of Oslo.

FROM ROSEY TO DEEP RED: Days later, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators held a ceremony at the Erez checkpoint to formally re-launch final-status talks. Meanwhile, Arafat was declaring his minimum “red-lines” at an Arab League summit in Cairo. He vowed any compromise with Israel must incorporate Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state that includes all of Judea/Samaria and Gaza, and must provide for the return of some 3.5 million Palestinian refugees to Israel. Arafat particularly denounced proposals that Palestinian refugees will have to permanently settle in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Barak chose the same moment and the nearby venue of Ma’aleh Adumim –- the largest “settlement” at over 25,000 — to confirm the unity of Jerusalem “enjoy[s] a wall-to-wall consensus in Israeli society,” and to assure the town that “in any permanent agreement, you will continue to be part of Israel.”

A communiqué from the PM’s Office simultaneously reinforced the limits of Barak’s predispositions: No return to the 1967 borders; a united Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital; no foreign army west of the Jordan River; most Israeli settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Barak envisions a “separation” of Palestinians and Israelis, with blocs of Israeli settlements to remain in place in any final settlement, under the protection of Israeli security forces. Conversely, the PA wants both open borders and a total “cleansing” of the “West Bank” of its Jewish presence.

DEFERRALS AND DELAYS: With the rhetoric heating up, staunch Israeli doves like Peres voiced grave doubts a final deal could be sealed within one year. Barak himself began hinting his tilt towards a further set of interim arrangements brokered by next September, with the toughest decisions of all – Jerusalem and refugees – deferred to the distant future. In a telling sign, even short-term deadlines for further prisoner releases and the opening of a southern “safe passage” route were soon tossed aside.

Negotiators failed to resolve in time security issues related to the safe passage route connecting the Erez crossing in Gaza with PA enclaves in the Hebron Hills, due to open by October 3 under Sharm. A compromise protocol was signed only a few days late, but lingering security disputes and Palestinian foot-dragging would delay the actual opening for nearly four weeks.

The PA chided as “humiliating” Israel’s insistence on a right to bar use of the overland route to any Palestinians it considered a security threat, even those with ties to terrorist groups. Israel eventually pledged not to arrest wanted terrorists who may try to travel the route through the heart of Israel proper, but retained the right to refuse them permission to use the safe passage in the first place.

The route opened despite the “serious concerns” of senior Israeli security officers over Palestinian terrorists escaping unseen from convoys and the many blind spots on the 43-kilometer journey. Opposition leader Ariel Sharon of Likud deemed the agreement a grave lapse in security, since Israel reserved no right to close the route in emergency situations. Their warnings proved justified when 17 Palestinians disappeared into Israel during its first week of operation and Palestinians waiting in a car raked a bus full of Israelis with gunfire only a mile from the Tarkumiya end of the passageway, wounding four. (A “northern” safe passage route connecting Gaza to the Ramallah area is under negotiation.)

After repeated delays, Israel also finally released a second wave of 151 Palestinian security prisoners, completing its Sharm commitments. To meet the quota, and despite Palestinian objections, Barak had to lower the bar set against releasing those with “blood on their hands.” Among those issued walking papers were Palestinians who committed acts of terror since Oslo began in 1993, killers of Arab “collaborators” and members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the rejectionist PLO faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. (More releases are to be discussed with the approach of the Muslim feast of Ramadan.)

DOUSING CAMP FIRES: Barak not only found himself in negotiations with the PA, but also with the YESHA council over small “outposts” established on the periphery of Jewish communities in Judea/Samaria since Wye was signed last October. Out of 42 encampments under review, YESHA leaders were able to save, at least for now, all but ten slated for evacuation by the IDF. Settler leaders began to oversee the voluntary dismantling of five uninhabited farming or industrial ventures, along with another five inhabited communities like the Maon Farm — set up south of Hebron after Palestinian shepherds killed Dov Dribben on the site about a year ago. But the on-going process has met with non-violent resistance from a substantial movement of young Zionists in the YESHA ranks — dubbed Dor Hemshech — who are vowing to return.

Barak and many to his left were quick to applaud the “spirit of national unity” behind the YESHA council actions, taken under its new pragmatic leader Benny Kashriel, Mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim. Kashriel has sought to open lines of communication with the current government on a mutual pledge that neither side would “surprise” each other. On the right, Sharon questioned the deal as a bad precedent for the future, while fellow Likudnik Michael Eitan stated “most of the national camp stands behind this compromise.”

But Palestinian officials were not impressed with Barak’s latest show of leniency on the settlements issue, and condemned the Israeli PM for forging a pact that “legitimizes theft by force.” Indeed, Barak’s settlement policies, dictated in part by strong pro-YESHA elements in his coalition, are sure to collide soon with a Palestinian ultimatum that final-status talks cannot proceed while settlement activity continues.

They also were perturbed Barak had yet to appoint the head of his team for those final-status talks. His first choice, Gilad Sher, reportedly refused to leave his law firm, and Barak finally settled on Ambassador to Jordan Oded Eran, a veteran diplomat and familiar face to many Arab leaders. The surprise selection drew a caustic reaction from his counterpart, PLO hard-liner Yasser Abed Rabbo, picked by Arafat to head the Palestinian negotiating team in a move widely viewed as part of Arafat’s efforts to consolidate the fractured Palestinian camp ahead of any final peace deal with Israel.

Rabbo characterized the Eran appointment as “not serious,” reflecting Israel’s desire to conduct the “real negotiations” in the “back channels.” Indeed, Arab fears of a secret channel – just like the one that produced the original Oslo deal — between Arafat and Barak on final-status issues are spreading, fueled by their quiet rendezvous at Barak’s home not long after Sharm e-Sheik. As the two figures prepared for a summit in Oslo with US President Bill Clinton to mark the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, such apprehensions were discernible in the recent rhetoric – some subtle, some more direct – on the volatile issue of Palestinian refugees emanating from Beirut, Damascus, Amman and Cairo.

For years, the PLO has bickered not only with Israel, but also with their closest Arab neighbors — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt — about what to do with the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War of Independence and the “displaced persons” from the Six-Day War of 1967. These Arab states, home to large populations of Palestinian refugees, are now anxious Arafat may cut a separate deal with Barak based primarily on a compensation formula, effectively leaving many of these Palestinians on their soil. Thus, key PA negotiator Nabil Sha’ath huddled in Gaza in late October with the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt for their first official, high-level meeting on the refugee issue — a subject for both bilateral and multilateral talks under Oslo. It is unclear whether Egypt and Jordan — who are passing over the November 2 gathering in Norway – agree with the PA’s distinction between the 1948 refugees (a final-status issue) and the displaced persons from 1967 (an interim subject).

Expectations are low for any dramatic developments in the Norwegian capital, as Clinton arrives politically wounded by Congress’ recent rejection of his funding request for $1.9 billion in Wye aid. His Wye funds appear to be the hostage for the moment of a larger domestic budget feud with the Republican Congress. But the setback makes it seem highly unlikely the proponents of comprehensive peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians will get congressional approval anytime soon for larger American compensation packages expected to amount to tens of billions in US dollars. And it does not bode well for Clinton’s own personal deadline for manufacturing dramatic new breakthroughs in Middle East peace before his presidency effectively ends a year from now.

Indeed, some say it already may be too late.

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