A psychological Berlin Wall came tumbling down last week, the promise of peace rising from the rubble. After decades of bitter enmity—and wilful denial of each other’s legitimacy—Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forged an agreement on mutual recognition. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s inner cabinet voted unanimously to approve that accord; a few hours later in Tunis, the PLO’s executive committee also gave its blessing, by a 9-to-4 margin. That set the stage for a historic peace pact between two of the Middle East’s most implacable foes. The two sides were to meet in Washington this week to sign an accord reached last month on Palestinian selfrule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rabin, a former army general who led his troops to victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, insisted that the Jewish state had to take risks. “Peace you don’t make with friends,
AMID PROTESTS, ISRAEL AND THE PLO SIGN A PEACE ACCORD MARKING A NEW ERA
but with very unsympathetic enemies,” he declared. “I won’t try to make the PLO look good. It was an enemy, it remains an enemy, but negotiations must be with enemies.”
The mutual recognition, worked out during months of secret meetings in Oslo and in a final flurry of bargaining in Paris, is the
biggest breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy since Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. In Washington, President Bill Clinton praised the agreement as an act of “courage and vision.” And he announced that on Sept. 13 he would host a gala ceremony on the south lawn of the White House at which Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat were to sign their accord on Palestinian self-rule. More encouraging reports quickly followed. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan said that their negotiators could also sign a draft peace agreement in Washington this week. That leaves only the conclusion of separate negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, both of which were progressing last week, to achieve the comprehensive peace that has eluded the Middle East since the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948.
Last week’s mutual recognition came in the form of letters exchanged by Rabin and Arafat. Rabin signed a short letter acknowledging the PLO as the “representative of the Palestinian people” and pledging to negotiate peace with the PLO. In a longer letter, Arafat recognized the “right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” The PLO, he wrote, committed itself to the Middle East peace process and to a “peaceful resolution to the conflict,” adding that “all outstanding issues relating to the permanent status [of the occupied territories] will be resolved through negotiations.” Arafat affirmed that “those articles of the Palestinian covenant which deny Israel’s right to exist, and the provisions of the covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter, are now inoperative and no longer valid.” Arafat also wrote a side letter to Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Joergen Holst, who played a key role in mediating the mutual recognition and the self-rule accord. In it, the PLO chairman promised to encourage the 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to “take part in the steps leading to the normalization of life, rejecting
violence and terrorism, contributing to peace and stability and participating actively in shaping reconstruction, economic development and co-operation.”
The accord on Palestinian self-rule proposes imminent autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, with limited self-rule for the rest of the West Bank during a five-year interim period. A poll published late last week by Israel’s Yediot Ahronot (The Latest News) newspaper showed that 57 per cent of Israeli Jews now support the self-rule plan, up four percentage points from a poll it conducted soon after the peace accord was revealed last month. Opposing the plan are 41 per cent of Israeli Jews, a drop of four percentage points from the first poll. As many as 60,000 right-wing Israelis and Jewish settlers showed their opposition last week by clashing with police outside Rabin’s office in Jerusalem. The demonstrators, organized by a Toronto-born rabbi, insisted that Palestinian self-rule is the first step towards an independent Palestinian state—with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. They vowed to scuttle the peace pact by any means necessary (page 30).
There was also opposition on the Palestinian side. Militants see the plan as a PLO surrender that ignores such key issues as Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the status of Jerusalem and the future of refugees in the diaspora. Discussions of those issues will likely be delayed for at least two years, when talks begin on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza. Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, a spokesman for the Muslim fundamentalist group Hamas, pledged to continue attacks against Israeli targets as long as Israeli soldiers occupy Palestinian land. Hamas has been the PLO’s biggest rival during nearly six years of intifadeh, or rebellion, in the West Bank and Gaza.
In a move clearly designed to pacify the Arab militants, Israel allowed some 180 Palestinian deportees to return last week. Israel had expelled 415 men to southern Lebanon last December after four Israeli soldiers and one border guard were slain earlier that month. Most of the deportees are members or supporters of Hamas, which is opposed to ArabIsraeli talks. Last week, Oded BenAmi, a senior aide to Rabin, said that the returnees would first be taken to detention camps where Israeli security forces would then decide—on the basis of evidence gathered on the men—who would ¡5 be sent to jail and who would be I sent home. While their repatriation g removes a focus of Islamic protests 1 against Israel and PLO moderates, ° all the deportees were not being ^ released at once to avoid sparking huge Israeli protests against the peace plan. Remaining in Lebanon are more than 200 Palestinians who will be allowed to return in December.
Rabin’s peace gamble also could face some tough opposition in the Israeli Knesset (parliament). Last week, Interior Minister Arye Deri, leader of the ultraorthodox Shas party, resigned from the coalition cabinet and threatened to remove the support of the party’s six members of parliament. A five-judge panel of Israel’s high court had earlier ordered Rabin to fire Deri and deputy religious affairs minister Rafael Pinhasi, also of Shas, because of corruption allegations. Deri complained that the prime minister was not doing enough to protect him from the charges. If Shas withdraws its support, that would leave Rabin’s coalition in a minority with 56 seats in the 120-member parliament. Rabin would then have to rely on the support of five members of Arab parties, who back the government from outside but are not partners in the coalition, to muster a bare majority. Right-wing Likud Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who took part in the Jerusalem protests last week, vowed that his party would spearhead a drive to bring down the government. Said Rabin of the Deri resignation: ‘There is no doubt that this could harm the chance for peace.”
The agreement holds political problems for Arafat, as well. In Tunis last week, five members of the 18-member PLO executive committee did not take part in the vote on recognition, because they oppose Arafat’s policy. Later, three members reportedly resigned. In effect, the agreement was passed only by Arafat’s Fatah, the PLO’s dominant group. It does not commit the more radical Palestinian factions. The leader of one of those groups, Abu Moussa, threatened Arafat with assassination last week for his peace accord. Above all, the agreement does not have the backing of the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas, which rejects a Jewish state as an offence to Islam. Hamas is estimated to command the support of up to 35 per cent of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Arafat’s success or failure will hinge on his personal authority, which has been severely diminished in recent years. His endorsement of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait earned him widespread opprobrium—and the loss of funding from Gulf Arab states.
Arafat now has to convince Palestinians, both in the territories and in the diaspora, that he represents their best hope of attaining national sovereignty.
Far from the problems still facing the Middle East, late last week White House staffers hurriedly prepared for the thousands of guests and journalists expected to attend the ceremonial signing of the Israeli-PLO accord. On a crosscountry flight aboard Air Force One from Washington to the silicon valley south of San Francisco, Clinton spent nearly three hours on the phone, talking to world leaders and issuing personal invitations. He told former president Jimmy Carter that he wanted “people to remember that Camp David is an integral part of the process,” referring to the accords that Carter mediated between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978. Clinton also phoned an old rival, George Bush, who started the latest round of Middle East peace talks two years ago. “You really should be proud of everything you did on this,” Clinton told Bush. In the euphoria over the stunning breakthroughs in the Middle East, the spirit of reconciliation was positively infectious.
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