AFTER SECRET TALKS, ISRAEL REACHES A STUNNING AGREEMENT WITH AN ARCHENEMY
PEACE GETS A CHANCE
AFTER SECRET TALKS, ISRAEL REACHES A STUNNING AGREEMENT WITH AN ARCHENEMY
An independent Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel? The very thought of it brings to mind the biblical prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, when the lamb and the wolf, natural enemies, shall dwell together in peace. But what was once an improbable dream became a realistic goal last week. Israeli and Palestinian officials said that they had reached tentative agreement on a phased introduction of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel’s cabinet quickly approved the proposal. And both sides said that the deal, struck in secret meetings in Norway, could be signed as early as this week at the eleventh round of ArabIsraeli peace talks in Washington. Then, another startling breakthrough: Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) announced imminent agreement on mutual recognition—a landmark decision that would remove a major obstacle to Middle East peace. In an emotional speech to the Knesset (parliament), Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres declared: “The beginning of the end to the 100-year conflict between us and the Palestinians is coming.” After 22 months of largely fruitless Arab-Israeli peace talks under the auspices of the United States and Russia,
events unfolded last week with stunning speed. News of the Palestinian autonomy deal had barely sunk in when negotiators Itamar Rabinovich of Israel and Mouwaffaq al-Allaf of Syria separately predicted that Jerusalem and Damascus would soon reach agreement on a framework for peace. That would entail Israel’s withdrawal from the
strategic Golan Heights in return for full diplomatic and trade relations with Syria. Meanwhile, a Jordanian official acknowledged that there is “a high chance” that Amman and Jerusalem will sign a draft peace agreement during the current round of Washington talks. And a PLO official said that Lebanon is also close to a settlement with Israel. Middle East analysts greeted the fast-breaking developments with a mixture of surprise and optimism. Said William Quandt, an expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution: “If Syria joins the parade, the Arab-Israeli conflict is on the way to being resolved.” The Israeli-Palestinian agreement announced last week proposes almost immediate autonomy for the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho (page 32). And there would be limited self-rule for the rest of the West Bank during a five-year interim period. Talks on the final status of the occupied territories, captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, would begin two years after the agreement is implemented. Although the Israeli government officially favors some form of eventual Palestinian confederation with neighboring Jordan, many Arabs and Israelis alike saw the accord as the first step towards an independent Palestinian state. Details of the agreement remained sketchy last week. But according to an unofficial transcript published in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot (The Latest News), an elected Palestinian council will govern the 1.8 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza during the five-year transition period. The council will have authority over education, culture, health, social welfare, taxation and tourism. The Palestinians will also be allowed to form their own police force.
A key part of the agreement, known among the negotiators as Gaza-Jericho First, is a development plan to rescue the Palestinians from economic crisis. It envisages joint Israeli-Palestinian action, financed by Arab, European, Japanese and American money to improve housing, water supplies, electricity and roads in the West Bank and Gaza, which have stagnated during 26 years of Israeli occupation. Said Richard Haass, a Middle East adviser to former U.S. president George Bush: “The Palestinians need to equate progress at the peace table with improvement in their lives.”
The Gaza-Jericho First proposal leaves unanswered several important questions. Discussions of those issues will likely be delayed for two years, when negotiations begin
on the final status of the occupied territories. Among the questions:
• The status of Jerusalem. Israel has steadfastly refused to consider any compromise over its capital, which includes Israeli-annexed Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians envisage the city as the future capital of their own independent state. The issue is the most contentious between the two sides.
• The status of some 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, where more than 100,000 Israelis live among 1.8 million Palestinians. Their rights under a future Palestinian government must be negotiated.
• Security arrangements. The two sides must agree where to redeploy Israeli troops currently stationed in the West Bank and Gaza, and decide what powers the proposed Palestinian police force will have over Arabs and Israelis.
• Palestinian refugees. The PLO wants the right of return for more than 800,000 Arabs who fled the West Bank and Gaza, mostly to Arab countries, during the 1967 ArabIsraeli war. Israel is concerned that such an influx will bolster the PLO’s demand for an independent state—a concept many Israelis are not yet ready to accept.
Although Western governments applauded the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, domestic critics condemned it—and often expressed their opposition violently. While Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet met in Jerusalem last week to vote on the proposal, about 4,000 Israeli right-wingers protested outside, hurling eggs at police who fired water cannon to disperse them. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the main opposition Likud party, threatened to bring down the Labor-led coalition government. Jewish settlers showed their opposition by declaring a new settlement in the West Bank. And an extreme right-wing Jewish group, Repression of Traitors, claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on the home of Interior Minister Arye Deri, saying that it was a warning for him to resign because of the agreement.
On the Palestinian side, radical guerrilla leader Ahmed Jibril threatened to kill PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Jibril pointedly reminded Arafat of the fate of another Arab who made peace with Israel, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat—assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1981. And Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier near the West Bank city of Hebron. Militant Arab groups in the occupied territories, including the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, oppose Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and have targeted many Israelis since the start of the intifadeh, or uprising, in 1987.
Analysts predicted more such violence in the future. “After the hubbub and surprise of the present agreement is over, the Jewish settlers will see that they have no future,” said Robert Neumann, director of Middle East studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some will give up and try to return to mainland Israel, others will resort to terrorism. Radicals on the Palestinian side will do the same. Both groups will know they can achieve nothing, but terrorism will keep them in the news.”
Still, Israeli and Palestinian public opinion appeared to back the autonomy plan. A poll published in Yediot Ahronot showed 53 per cent of Israelis in favor of the proposal, 45 per cent opposed. The same paper also published a poll showing that 74 per cent of Palestinians in the occupied territories support the agreement while 24 per cent oppose it.
The Israeli-Palestinian accord was the culmination of a series of international, regional and domestic pressures on both sides. For the PLO, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet communism brought a decline in diplomatic and military support from Moscow and its Warsaw Pact allies. Arafat’s ill-placed support of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War also cost him the moral and political backing of many Western liberals and, even more damaging, the financial aid of oil-rich Arab Gulf states. (The PLO’s annual budget was $260 million in 1990, but is now about $130 million.) Meanwhile, the rising popularity of militant Arab groups in the occupied territories enabled Arafat to appear increasingly moderate to nervous Israelis. Last week, PLO officials said that they were very close to announcing their recognition of Israel’s right to exist and their renunciation of violence, preconditions for the Jewish state’s recognition of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
For Rabin’s Labor government, elected last year on a platform of “peace with security,” neither goal had seemed attainable after 14 months in office. Rabin, a former army general, made it clear from the outset that he was willing to trade captured land for peace with his Arab neighbors. But progress was elusive during 10 previous rounds of formal negotiations; terrorist violence continued unabated and Israelis grew increasingly impatient for change. Spurred on by his more moderate foreign minister, Peres, and cognizant of the humbled PLO’s readiness to compromise, Rabin decided to gamble on the Gaza-Jericho First proposal. As he told his coalition partners last week: “The time has come to take a chance on peace.” Late last week, after nine months of secret discussions, Arab and Israeli negotiators were putting the final touches on a number of historic agreements—and a biblical prophecy seemed about to come true.
with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington
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