Even as they wade through a swamp of unresolved controversies on their interim peace agreement amid distrust exacerbated by a terrorist murder, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat face the threat of that agreement’s broader collapse at their summit near Washington this week.
In Jerusalem and Washington, and at the Palestinian Authority’s offices in the West Bank and Gaza, officials talk increasingly of the necessity for this summit to at least address a greater priority: the need to find a formula for extending the May 4 deadline by which the whole Oslo peace accord is to be completed.
Enveloped by a press blackout, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ostensibly working with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on their long-paralyzed dispute over Israel’s second redeployment of its forces on the West Bank. A tangle of other issues remain attached to this one like barnacles, most importantly, the two sides’ dispute over Palestinian security measures.
But as they labor at the isolated Wye Conference Center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Oslo peace treaty’s demand that the two sides resolve the final status of the West Bank by May 4 looks increasingly sure to go unmet — especially since these talks, sure to be even more contentious, have yet to even start.
“They have to start talking about extending the deadline early on if the process is to continue,” said Martin Raffel, co-director of the Israel Task Force of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. “If the deadline is not a realistic date, the sooner they deal with it the better.”
With Arafat warning he may unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state if the peace process remains frozen by that date, “The most serious criterion for success at the Wye summit is for the sides to eliminate, through American mediation, the possibility of unilateral steps by either side,” wrote Zev Schiff, the veteran security analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz Wednesday.
“If May 4 isn’t on the agenda at this week’s meeting — and I have no indication it is —then the meetings will be a joke,” said Yossi Beilin, a Labor member of Knesset and peace process advocate.
The Clinton administration continues to insist that completion of an interim deal that includes a 13 percent Israeli redeployment on the West Bank, enhanced Palestinian security cooperation and a host of smaller issues would trigger the start of serious final-status negotiations.
But even a senior Clinton administration official admitted to Haaretz Wednesday, “We have got to get into the permanent-status issues, or there is a looming disaster out there, frankly.”
According to several reports, the Americans have informally asked Israel to accept the principle of a Palestinian state, with borders to be negotiated in the final-status talks, in exchange for the Palestinians agreeing to defer the May 4 deadline.
Even before the latest twists and turns in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, officials here and in Jerusalem did not know what to expect from this week’s high-stakes summit.
Tuesday’s killings outside Jerusalem, which prompted Netanyahu to say that “there is absolutely no chance, at this stage, of signing an agreement” at the summit, and his more optimistic comments on Wednesday after a meeting with Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan in Jordan, added to the muddle.
[One Israeli was killed and a second wounded Tuesday near Jerusalem in an apparent terrorist attack. Itamar Doron, 24, was fatally shot while bathing in a makeshift mikveh frequented by chasidic followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Eyewitnesses told Jerusalem police they saw Palestinians fleeing the scene. Ilan Mazon, 25, was in critical but stable condition following the attack.]
Meanwhile, opinion was split over whether the appointment of hardliner Ariel Sharon as foreign minister boded opportunity or disaster for the Wye talks. Optimists said Sharon’s ascension signaled an impending deal on the interim issues and Netanyahu’s determination to shore up his right flank in anticipation of this; according to the pessimists, the appointment is a guaranteed deal breaker.
Sharon seemed to give fodder to the pessimists Tuesday when he told the Israeli cabinet, “We must stand up for our demands. Now is the time to rein us in, shackle our hands and our legs now … you won’t have another opportunity later.” Sharon told the cabinet he himself would vote against the 13 percent redeployment.
“Everything’s unclear — even the schedule for the summit,” said an Israeli official as preparations for the meetings accelerated. “It’s a party, but is it a sit down or buffet? Maybe Albright and the prime minister know, but they’re not telling.”
Albright, according to the State Department, plans to remain at the Wye River Conference Center until Sunday, but would be willing to alter her schedule to remain longer. President Clinton will open the summit at the White House, and will remain available to negotiators if his presence is required to break deadlocks or close a deal.
Early this week, the State Department was once again downplaying expectations of a sweeping breakthrough. On Tuesday, spokesman James Rubin said an agreement “is by no means a sure thing. It will require some tough choices by both sides if we’re going to get such an agreement.”
Israeli officials said that while the parties were close to agreements on peripheral issues, including the creation of an industrial zone in Gaza, there were still wide gaps on the biggest issues — including Israel’s demands for more stringent security measures by the Palestinians and Arafat’s insistence on a freeze in settlement expansion by the Israelis.
But even if the summit is successful, it is far from clear what comes next.
Despite the official rhetoric, few observers expect quick progress in the final-status negotiations, which will take up the most explosive issues of all, including Jerusalem, the borders and nature of the Palestinian entity, Jewish settlements, the status of Palestinian refugees and water resources.
Even if final-status talks begin in the coming weeks, progress will be slow, and complicated by the need to avert a crisis in May.
“We know what the issues are in the permanent status negotiations and that they are difficult,” said Raffel of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. “I suspect that what comes next are negotiations to develop some kind of structure for addressing each issue, since each is so sensitive and so complex.”
That means creation of working groups to begin laying the groundwork for discussing Jerusalem, borders and the other issues.
“There will be procedural wrangling; they have to decide who will tackle each issue, who’s going to be at the table,” he said. “It’s not going to be a fast process.”
Although hard negotiating on final-status issues will probably not begin for months, at best, the issue of Palestinian statehood must be addressed quickly if a May 4 explosion is to be averted, said Henry Siegman, director of the Mideast program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Siegman warned that an interim agreement at this week’s summit that simply tries to tie up leftover issues may be worse than no agreement at all.
“It is a very serious mistake to assume that a Camp David-style negotiation focusing only on the 13 percent Israeli redeployment and some of the subsidiary issues will constitute the necessary breakthrough to avoid a crisis in May,” he said.
Jumping directly into final-status talks, he said, may worsen the situation because the Palestinians have no reason to believe Israel will be more forthcoming on critical issues like Jerusalem and statehood.
Instead, Siegman proposes negotiating a new “declaration of principles” laying out the goals of the last phases of the negotiations and some fundamental concepts that will guide them.
An essential element of that agreement, he said, must be some kind of formulation recognizing Palestinian statehood as a goal, as well as clearly delineated measures to enhance Israel’s security.
That would necessarily involve negotiations to extend the Oslo time frame and postpone final status negotiations.