World

Cautious steps towards peace

At Camp David, Israelis and Palestinians agree to compromises but stumble over the issue of Jerusalem

John Nicol August 7 2000
World

Cautious steps towards peace

At Camp David, Israelis and Palestinians agree to compromises but stumble over the issue of Jerusalem

John Nicol August 7 2000

Cautious steps towards peace

World

At Camp David, Israelis and Palestinians agree to compromises but stumble over the issue of Jerusalem

Yasser Arafat flew home to a hero’s welcome from thousands of Palestinians in the dusty streets of Gaza. Cheered by children chanting, “We are following Arafat on the way to Jerusalem,” the 70-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority returned with nothing concrete to show for 15 days of Middle East peace negotiations at Camp David in Maryland. But many Palestinians likened him to Saladin, the Saracen chieftain who drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land in 1187, and hailed him for his toughness—especially his refusal to yield in his demands for sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had a more muted homecoming. But he also portrayed himself as a warrior: the brave Israeli who had striven for success at the negotiating table. In the end, though, he said, “We did not find a partner prepared to take hard decisions.” Israel was willing to pay “a heavy price” for peace—but “not any price.” For all that, many observers saw the failed attempt to end the IsraeliPalestinian conflict once and for all as an important step forward. Seven years after the breakthrough in Oslo, Norway, where Arafat signed an agreement recognizing Israel’s right to exist in peace, the Middle East has moved on. Many Israelis, on the right as well as the left of the political spectrum, no longer delude themselves that they can rule three million Palestinians and remain a democracy. Palestinians, for the most part, recognize that they cannot win an

all-out national liberation war. And at the Camp David summit itself, which Barak had persuaded U.S. President Bill Clinton, hungry for a foreign policy victory, to convene, the two sides “closed some gaps” according to Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher. “The process is not over. They’re going to have to get back to talking.”

Alpher, a former special adviser to Barak, says there was even movement on the thorny issue of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. “What we witnessed was the slaughtering of sacred cows,” he says. “Barak initiated a public debate, far beyond anything we have known before, on what there is about Jerusalem that is important to us.” Others concurred. The mere fact, commented the liberal Tel-Aviv daily Haaretz, “that the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were discussed is a turning point from which there is no return. The era of sloganeering is over.” Seen in that light, Camp David indeed witnessed some movement. Israel

floated the once-unthinkable idea of shared rule in East Jerusalem—conquered along with other territory by Israel in the 1967 war. It acknowledged Palestinian claims on the Jordan Valley, billed for three decades as Israel’s shield against attack from Jordan or Iraq to the east. It offered to take back a token number of refugees under the guise of family reunions—after largely ignoring the issue for the last 50 years. On the other side, the Palestinians, for the first time, appeared ready to compromise on their previous demands that the pre-1967 border remain inviolate—even to the point of allowing Israel to annex settlements on the occupied West Bank, bringing a majority of the 200,000 Jews living there under direct Israeli sovereignty. “There are no taboos anymore,” Avraham Burg, Speaker of the Knesset and a senior member of Barak’s One Israel party, told Macleans before the Camp David talks collapsed.

The taboos may be gone, but dangers remain. If negotiations are to continue, Arafat must fend off Palestinian pressure to declare an independent state on Sept. 13. Barak must rebuild his tattered coalition government after losing the support of right-wing parties angered by his willingness to compromise. “The things he was ready to give up are too big and too crucial for the future of the state of Israel,” said Timor Livnat, a member of the opposition Tikud party. But the Knesset goes into summer recess in early August, giving Barak a three-month political respite. And there is always the prospect of success at the negotiating table as Israelis and Palestinians reflect on Camp David— and whether to push ahead.

John Nicol with Eric Silver in Jerusalem

Eric Silver