Despite Progress, Showdown Looms

Friday, October 2, 1998
Lawrence Cohler-Esses is a staff writer. James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.
Like Lucy holding out her football for Charlie Brown to kick again, President Clinton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat once more raised the world’s expectations Monday for a breakthrough on their long-stalled peace agreement. But when the three faced an expectant White House press corps after their meeting, Clinton again voiced the phrases heard so often before. “There has been a significant narrowing of the gaps,” the president said, but “to be candid, there’s still a substantial amount of work to be done.” One could almost see Charlie Brown barreling down on the ball, and sprawling to the ground again as Lucy swiped it away at the last second. Clinton outlined plans for yet more high-level talks on the long-delayed second interim redeployment of Israeli military forces on the West Bank. But many analysts said this week that the continuing impasse over this issue only underlines that the real Israeli-Palestinian crisis now lies elsewhere: in the prospective demise of the overall Oslo peace process, of which the redeployment is only a small part. “They’re wasting time,” said Steven Spiegel, Middle East specialist at UCLA’s Center for International Relations, referring to the secondary importance today of the redeployment talks. Like several other analysts, Spiegel said the real priority now for those involved in the Oslo talks should be negotiating the extension of the Oslo Accords themselves, lest their lapsing lead to disaster. Under Oslo, May 4, 1999 is the deadline for completing negotiations on the West Bank’s final status. But endless wrangling has paralyzed implementation of the treaty’s presumably simpler, interim measures and forestalled even the opening of these much more complex talks. Jerusalem, claims for Palestinian statehood, water and resource rights, and painful, permanent territorial concessions are but a few of the issues these final talks encompass. Few besides Netanyahu and his government spokesmen believe there is any prospect of real progress on these issues by May 4 — in the event the two sides even begin negotiating on them soon. Yet American and Israeli officials remain wholly immersed in the swamp of the interim redeployment details. In contrast to the Palestinians, both say frankly they have not even begun to contemplate options as the possible lapsing or failure of the overall process looms. “There are no plans, no papers, no policy discussions,” said Dore Gold, Israel’s UN ambassador, when asked what thought Israel was giving to the territory beyond Oslo’s May 4 boundary. “Right now, we’re just trying to make Oslo work. We’re not trying to figure out how to collapse it.” Martin Indyk, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, told The Jewish Week: “We do need to worry about the lack of time to deal with the most difficult issues in the final-status negotiations.” But asked about U.S. steps to address this, he said, “That’s an issue the parties would have to deal with once they got into negotiating again. We can only deal with it in that context.” Arafat, meanwhile, is continuing to signal the May 4 deadline will be a date for strong action of some kind — though heavy U.S. arm twisting pressured him to back down from issuing an unequivocal declaration in his UN speech Monday that he will act unilaterally to establish a Palestinian state that day. Among other things, the Palestinians fear Netanyahu seeks simply to prolong negotiations indefinitely while Israeli settlements on the West Bank continue to expand steadily. Despite Arafat’s soft-pedaling of the issue at the UN, Palestinian Authority ministries remain under instructions to develop contingency plans for implementing their own post-statehood programs come May 4. Gold, a key Oslo negotiator, insists real progress on final-status issues remains doable by May 4. Citing the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s admonition that in the Oslo framework, “No dates are sacred,” he said, “The more we work on [issues surrounding the May 4 deadline], the more we pull the process in the wrong direction.” Yossi Alpher, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office and a former Israeli intelligence analyst, said, “My sense is that Netanyahu and his entourage are not terribly focused on this. They’re not making any effort to look beyond next week, and certainly not to May. “We do have Netanyahu’s threats — that Israel will react in kind to a unilateral declaration. But I don’t see any evidence there’s been any concerted attempt to figure out what all this should mean after a unilateral declaration by Arafat.” For Alpher, such a declaration would be no mere exercise in rhetoric. Despite Israel’s continuing military control of all but 3 percent of the West Bank and its economic dominance of the West Bank and Gaza, a unilateral declaration of statehood by Arafat could have many potentially catastrophic consequences, said Alpher. “For example, if today the Palestinians want to dig a water well, they must coordinate it with Israel,” he said. “But if they decide this is no longer for them as a sovereign state, then, if a Palestinian drills a well in Tulkarm, the water table goes down in Tel Aviv. “This is a causus belli,” Alpher warned. Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are also obliged to turn over any Israeli they arrest to the Israeli police, even for a traffic violation, Alpher noted. But after declaring sovereignty, they could take alleged lawbreakers into their own custody. “Then you’d have a major incident brewing,” he said. So far, the only proposals from any side for negotiating an extension of Oslo have come from Yossi Beilin of the opposition Labor Party. Beilin, who helped negotiate the accords as deputy foreign minister in the previous Labor government, proposed this week that Arafat disavow his threat to declare a state unilaterally and agree to extend the Oslo deadline a year and a half, to Jan. 1, 2001. In exchange, he said, Israel should make two key concessions: It should agree to expedite negotiations on both the second and third redeployments Israel is obliged to make under Oslo so that when they are completed, Israeli military forces will be withdrawn from 50 percent of the West Bank. Up to now, Netanyahu has committed himself to no more than 40 percent, while Arafat continues to demand 90 percent. Secondly, said Beilin, Israel should declare that whatever final-status solution is negotiated will include a demilitarized Palestinian state “which Israel will recognize.” “I don’t talk about borders or size, but the principle,” Beilin told a forum sponsored by the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation in New York Sunday. At the forum, which Arafat and Gold also addressed, Saeb Erakat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, voiced a strikingly friendly interest in Beilin’s proposal. But Erekat asked: “In what capacity is he presenting this? Can Netanyahu offer these things?” Meir Sheetrit, the head of Netanyahu’s Likud coalition in the Knesset and another panelist at the forum, told The Jewish Week afterward, “It’s not realistic. It’s too much to expect.” “That worries me,” said Stephen Cohen, the center’s president and a longtime peace process mediator. “Yossi is the only person who is facing up to the reality that the proposals on the table on the Palestinian side for unilateral independence, and on the Israeli side to pretend that May 4 does not exist, both amount to the same thing: welcome to Armageddon.”