WORLD

A deal—for now

The next peace talks will be the toughest of all

ERIC SILVER November 2 1998
WORLD

A deal—for now

The next peace talks will be the toughest of all

ERIC SILVER November 2 1998

A deal—for now

WORLD

MIDDLE EAST

The next peace talks will be the toughest of all

Getting the deal took nine days of trench warfare amid the pastoral serenity of Maryland’s Wye Plantation conference centre, about an hour’s drive east of Washington. There were last-minute snags, threatened walkouts, periods of not speaking—all the usual brinkmanship that plagues Mideast summit negotiations. But in the end, Israel and the Palestinians took another grudging step on the road to peace charted in Oslo five years ago. The tough part will be selling the deal to hardliners back home—and, even tougher, building on it to produce a lasting peace.

All three leaders involved—Israeli, Palestinian and American—could claim a measure of victory after a 19-month impasse. U.S. President Bill Clinton, who invested more than 70 hours of his time in the haggling, came away with an international success after months of being mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won an extra 13 per cent of the West Bank conquered by Israel in 1967. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gained pledges, underwritten by the CÍA, of Palestinian co-operation in combating terrorism. Despite a last-minute hitch over the proposed release of Jonathan Pollard, an American naval intelligence analyst serving £ a life sentence for spying for Israel, all three = leaders emerged beaming for the cameras at | the signing ceremony in Washington last " Friday. They were accompanied by Jordan’s King Hussein, who joined the talks while getting cancer treatment in the United States. For the first time, old enemies Netanyahu and Arafat referred to each other as “partners” in the peace process.

But throughout the bargaining, both men were constantly looking over their shoulders. More than a third of Netanyahu’s 17member cabinet opposed any double-digit withdrawal from what they regard as the Jewish inheritance of Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank. A dozen hardline MPs from his ruling coalition threatened to bring him down. Zealots among the 160,000 West Bank Jewish settlers geared up for a massive protest campaign. “Every inch of land that has been surrendered to the PLO has turned overnight into a haven of impunity for terrorists—this is not going to change,” said Benny Begin, son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin and a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet until he resigned over Israel’s 1997 withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron.

Arafat, meanwhile, faced an increasingly militant network of Islamic fundamentalists, who reject the Oslo process as a betrayal of Arab title to the whole of Palestine, including Israel. With the peace process stalled, with Israel expanding settlements and with the West Bank and Gaza economy stagnating, polls showed more and more Palestinians were agreeing with them. Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the biggest Islamist

group, Hamas, accused Arafat of yielding to the double pressure of Israel and the Americans. “He who holds the club in the middle,” Yassin said, “cannot use it.” As if to prove that Hamas was not bluffing, one of its fighters last week threw two hand grenades into a crowded bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, wounding 66 people.

Under the Wye accord, Israel agreed to withdraw its troops from another 13.1 per cent of the West Bank, giving the Palestinians control of about 42 per cent. Israel will also give up control of security in an area representing 14.2 per cent, where the Palestinians already had civil control. The Jewish state pledged to release 750 Palestinian prisoners of 3,000 currently held in Israeli jails and to consider the release of more.

Arafat promised to arrest Palestinians, including some now serving in his police force, who are accused of attacking Israelis, and to

keep them in jail if convicted. Clinton agreed to have the CIA verify the process. Arafat also agreed to confiscate illegal weapons held by Palestinians, and to annul clauses in the 1964 Palestine Liberation Organization charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Clinton said he would address the Palestinian National Council that must carry out that change. He also agreed to review spy Pollard’s case, although Pollard’s wife Esther, who lives in Toronto, responded: “Mr. Clinton has been saying that ever since he took office.”

While Netanyahu could expect a hostile reception from right-wingers in the 120member Knesset, where his majority is down to one, his government is unlikely to fall in the short term. The main left-wing opposition parties, Labour and Meretz, are offering him a safety net of support until the redeployment is completed in three months.

But there is plenty of trouble ahead. Arafat

has vowed to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on May 4, 1999, the original deadline for the end of the Oslo process. To head off that prospect, which genuinely frightens the Israelis, they will have to make headway towards yet another redeployment due under the accords, and begin serious talks on a final agreement to end the conflict—including such intractable issues as borders and the status of Jerusalem. The outlook is not encouraging. Yossi Beilin, a former Labour minister and one of the architects of the Oslo pact, sees little chance under Netanyahu. “A permanent solution means a Palestinian state and withdrawal from most of the West Bank,” Beilin told Maclean’s. “I don’t see him implementing that unless he changes his ideology 180 degrees.” Come spring, Clinton may need to book some more time at Wye Plantation.

ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem