SOUNDING RETREAT

Ex-General Barak Agrees to Wye Withdrawals

Only days before US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's arrival on September 1, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat appeared close to agreement on Israeli redeployments and most outstanding issues related to the Wye River accords. Although release of Palestinian prisoners remained a key sticking point at press time, a new deal took shape after former general Barak deserted forward positions in the face of an immovable PA, and domestic and international pressure.

Fresh from his US tour in mid-July, Barak showed no signs of letting up in his drive to revive the peace process. But scheduled engagements with Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were postponed by the death of Morocco's King Hassan, a key Arab proponent of reconciliation with Israel. A large Israeli delegation joined world leaders at Hassan's funeral in Rabat, where speculation centered on whether Syria's Hafez el-Assad might risk an encounter with Barak's entourage. US President Bill Clinton's strange bid at "funeral diplomacy" failed when Assad was a no-show, but Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stepped forward to greet Barak.

When Barak and Arafat finally met in Gaza, the Israeli premier again pitched his "refinements" of the interim Wye withdrawals. On the eve of their rendezvous, Barak styled Wye as "problematic" and urged the Palestinians to be more flexible in their demands for implementation. Instead, he favored a new timeframe for the second phase of redeployments, and folding the third phase into final-status talks on borders, settlements, refugees, Palestinian statehood, and Jerusalem.

Barak warned that, if the PA refused his Wye variations, he would honor the agreements, but "both sides would have to bear the consequences." Barak hinted this could result in tougher Israeli positions in final-status talks. It also would prompt Barak, as did his predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu, to demand full Palestinian compliance with their sequential Wye obligations (for example, security co-operation, arresting and extraditing terrorists, ending "incitement to violence," and combating terror infrastructure in PA areas).

Arafat begrudgingly agreed to set up a joint "Wye assessment" committee and to take two weeks to ponder a response. The timing was meant to coincide with Albright's original arrival date. And although Barak elicited some support for his ideas in a meeting with Mubarak, the committee soon floundered in what the PA termed a "crisis." One Palestinian source accused Barak with "procrastinating -- just like Netanyahu."

The PA ended what little suspense remained, informing Israel days beforehand they would reject Barak's ideas outright when the deadline arrived. They felt confident enough to confess Arafat never seriously considered re-negotiating "what had been agreed to," because it "wrecks the credibility of Palestinian leadership."

Barak shot back that the PA was being too "rigid," while his Foreign Minister David Levy faulted them for "creating drama." Barak defended his proposals as mutually beneficial, identifying his major concern with small, interim pullbacks as being the way it will expose isolated Jewish communities in Judea/Samaria to terrorism. Barak reasoned that such a scenario would lead to increased friction between settlers and Palestinians during crucial talks on a final settlement -- a bad result for both sides.

Things grew hotter for Barak when Israeli media began denouncing his patronizing attitude towards the PA. Ha'Aretz columnist Yoel Marcus suggested Barak suffered from an "overabundance of smarts" by devising a "plan so intricate and ingenious that it does the thinking for the other side too." With both Palestinians and the Israeli Left comparing Barak to Netanyahu ("Barakyahu"), the former general was pressed to sound a diplomatic retreat.

But not before reacting strongly to a shooting attack against two Israelis driving into Hebron. Barak cited the "fight against terrorism" as taking precedence over the peace process. Arafat only enflamed matters by marking his 70th birthday with a hostile speech in Ram'Allah, swearing "Allah willing, we will continue with our struggle, our jihad and once again enter the city of Jerusalem." Palestinians seemed to heed the call, as more terrorist incidents ensued (see News Briefs).

BARAK BLINKS: Barak decided to phone Albright to request she delay her trip in light of the plunging atmosphere. The US made clear, however, that it expected Barak to begin immediate implementation of Wye. In the face of an unyielding PA and mounting American and domestic pressure, Barak began to buckle under by airing a willingness to complete all three phases of withdrawal by February 15, independent of final-status talks.

Thereafter, talks showed signs of significant progress on a number of Wye's outstanding issues, including the scope and timing of withdrawals, routes of safe passage, and the Gaza seaport. Barak revised positions to narrow gaps between the parties, offering to begin the second pullback in early October and the third pullback in early January. He even instructed the Israel Defense Forces to resume on September 1 their preparations for redeployment.

Barak then sweetened the deal further by offering to complete all withdrawals by January 15th, one month earlier than previously suggested, in exchange for the PA fulfilling its Wye obligations, with the exception of collecting illegal weapons. Specifically, Barak wanted the PA to downsize its "police forces" by 6,000 personnel and submit a list of policemen for Israeli review.

But the forward progress was derailed by differences over the emotionally-charged issue of prisoner releases. The discord stemmed from opposing understandings of an oral agreement reached during last October's Wye River talks. The Palestinians claim they were promised the release of 750 "security prisoners," or what they call "political prisoners." Barak, like Netanyahu, deems them "terrorists" directly responsible for the deaths of Israelis, and wanted only Palestinian criminals released for now. But he did suggest a release of almost all security prisoners, even those with "blood on their hands," when a final settlement is reached.

Gaza Security Chief Muhammed Dahlan pondered aloud that, since he and other current Palestinian leaders had sent the men now serving time in Israeli prisons on their terror missions, how could Israel distinguish between their continued imprisonment and shaking hands with Arafat. Some in Barak's cabinet voiced similar views, but for most Israelis it was too painful a concession to contemplate at present. Nonetheless, Israeli officials suggested a compromise formula allowing release of Fatah members only indirectly responsible for pre-Oslo injuries and death.

It was unclear at deadline whether Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had managed to clear this and other hurdles in time for Albright's arrival, as Barak's patience seemed to wear thin. Details of an emerging package called for Israel to complete remaining withdrawals stipulated under Wye by January 20 and, instead of a 5% territorial withdrawal in the first phase, it will hand over 7%. Both sides acknowledged Albright's looming appearance was the driving force behind the deal, which they hope will be signed in a ceremony in Cairo with her and Mubarak presiding.

Meanwhile, Albright plans to spend only one day in Damascus while in the region, a sign of little progress on the Syrian front. Jordan's King Abdullah II, who flew to Damascus only hours after returning from King Hassan's funeral last month, was one of several intermediaries searching for a formula for renewing Israel/Syria peace talks. Abdullah carried a message -- later reinforced by Clinton in a letter to Assad urging him to "seize the moment of opportunity" -- that Israel was prepared to start again at the place things left off in 1996, without preconditions and with allowances for disagreement over where that point may be.

But hopes for any headway faded when the obstinate Syrian leader responded to Clinton that Israel must unconditionally commit to a full retreat. Even arch-dove Justice Minister Yossi Beilin lamented, "If he [Assad] demands that we undertake to return to the line of June 4, 1967… in my view that means that this man is not truly prepared to make peace with us." When Beilin visited Washington in August, Albright reportedly told him the US had adopted the Syrian position, a major policy shift coming perhaps out of Clinton's desperation for a self-serving breakthrough with Damascus. But even US officials are admitting chances for progress are lean.


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