5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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An end to all ambivalenceBy Ibrahim Nafie
Ehud Barak's first diplomatic visit reveals the importance the Israeli government attaches to Egypt's political weight in the region. Cairo, for its part, explained to the new prime minister that the former Israeli government is responsible for derailing the peace process. In order to bring about a true and lasting peace, Israel must implement the articles of the agreements it has already signed and resume negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks.
Because Egypt realises that Barak needs time to organise himself domestically and to complete his round of foreign tours, Mubarak has advised that we should "give him a chance". The president also outlined Egypt's position on the peace process, reminding Barak that Egypt was the first to open the door to peace in the region. Mubarak stressed that Egypt does not seek to pressure any side, or to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians, but rather to contribute to the consolidation of peace. He further reaffirmed that the Palestinian cause is the heart of the problem in the Middle East, but that Israel must resume negotiations on all tracks if we are to reach a just peace as quickly as possible.
These are the pillars of Egypt's policy on the peace process. Because Rabin respected them, the process moved forward and Egyptian-Israeli relations witnessed progress. Netanyahu, on the other hand, lost Egypt's confidence and that of the world community, including Israel's strategic ally, the US. Cairo had given him ample time to implement the agreements signed by Rabin and to resume negotiations where they left off on the Syrian track. Netanyahu's response was to procrastinate, manoeuvre and lie, dragging the region back to the situation that prevailed before the peace process began.
Now that Barak has been given some respite, will he reverse the effects of Netanyahu's policies, which froze the peace process and disrupted cooperation?
The nations of the region greeted Barak's recent electoral victory with optimism. Egypt even refused to indulge the hard-line statements he made while still exulting over his victory. Cairo was willing to view such statements as geared primarily to Israeli domestic consumption, but it was quick to caution Barak against persisting in that vein. President Mubarak said at the time: "I fear that statements regarding the refusal to restore the land to its Arab owners will eventually create obstacles to the peace process and antagonise Arab public opinion. Such statements are ultimately very harmful."
What is particularly disturbing now is that Barak's position is vague and potentially misleading. He has suggested that Israel implement the second phase of redeployment called for in the Wye Memorandum and enter into final status negotiations before implementing the third phase of redeployment. He argues that, once the Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement over the final status issues, the implementation of the third phase will become redundant because it will have been subsumed under the final status agreement. If the Palestinians reject this proposal, or if the final status negotiations break down, however, then Barak is willing to implement the third phase of the Wye accord.
This proposal can only mean that Barak wants to minimise the amount of land under Palestinian control before entering negotiations. Moreover,he wants to reopen negotiations over the land the Palestinians secured under the Wye agreement. This position is unacceptable.
There can be no more wavering and conspiracies. There can be no linkage between Wye and the final status negotiations. Israel's priority must be to implement its obligations under Wye, which include practical steps to begin implementing the third phase of redeployment as called for by the Oslo Accords.
In case Barak has forgotten, the accord signed by the Rabin government divided the West Bank and Gaza into three areas. In the first phase of redeployment, Israel was to withdraw from seven West Bank cities, control over which was to be transferred to the PA. Approximately 24 per cent of the West Bank, was subjected to PA administrative authority and Israeli security authority. Under Oslo, full control over this area was to have been transferred to the PA by no later than 7 September 1996. Finally, military camps and areas surrounding the settlements, 73 per cent of the West Bank, remained subject to full Israeli administrative and security control. Under Oslo, Israeli control over this area was to end on 7 September 1997.
The entire peace process, including final status negotiations, was scheduled to end by 4 May 1999. Even now, the second phase of redeployment is less than half complete.
Barak must perceive that, if there is to be any forward movement in the peace process, he must begin to implement the second and third phases of redeployment immediately, as stipulated by Oslo, and to release the Palestinian detainees. It is also nonsensical to talk about peace while Israel persists in violating the text and spirit of the negotiations. The continued expropriation of Palestinian land, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of Jewish settlements, which are taking place in areas controlled by the Israeli occupation forces or on confiscated Arab land, under the guise of the "natural expansion" of existing settlements, pose one of the greatest threats to the peace process.
If Barak really wants to restore confidence, he should end all forms of settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. He should understand that this question is one of principle, and is not open to haggling.
During his recent visit to Egypt, Barak recognised the link between the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. This was a welcome development. It certainly suggests that he has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor, who imagined that he could pit Lebanon against Syria while derailing negotiations with the Palestinians.
The Arabs have done all they can to reach an agreement with Israel. Israel -- as a state, not as any given coalition -- has consistently obstructed the peace process. The agreements Israel has signed, regardless of the government in power, are international and therefore binding. A new government does not have the right to renege on its commitments or to demand amendments. To do so is to violate all the principles of international law.
Barak has a heavy task before him if he is to cast off the legacy of his predecessor and counter the considerable scepticism Israel, as a state, has earned through its policies in the region. He must act consistently with the international treaties his nation has signed. This is what we, and the rest of the Arab world, expect from the Barak government in the coming weeks.