4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
The Oslo showBy Graham Usher
Despite the hype and various notables in attendance, the summit in Oslo passed less with a bang than a whimper. After two days consisting mostly of well-rehearsed eulogies to Yitzhak Rabin, the most President Bill Clinton could muster at the close of the "memorial" to the late Israeli prime minister was the following: "The two sides have agreed to work very hard to avoid public comments or actions which will cause enormous difficulties for the other side in the coming days, when they are trying to come to a framework agreement," said Clinton, hand linked in hand with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak.
There were no announcements of agreements or breakthroughs. There wasn't even a final press conference with the three leaders.
Nor was this surprising, given the concerted efforts the Israelis had made to "lower expectations" in the run-up to the summit. But it also appears that even the minimal expectations the Palestinian leader took with him to Oslo were left unsatisfied.
The Palestinian leadership had wanted a commitment from Clinton of a permanent US engagement in Oslo's final status negotiations between now and next February, the scheduled deadline for reaching a Framework Agreement on the Permanent Status. But while Clinton said in Oslo "there is nothing I would not do" to aid the negotiating process, he also said that the "really hard part" of making "substantive decisions" would have to be left to the parties themselves. Nor did he rule out his participation in a Camp David-like meeting sometime in January, though the Palestinian view is that American intervention at that stage is more likely to redound to Barak's benefit than Arafat's.
Arafat got even less satisfaction regarding the issue of Israel's ongoing settlement construction in the Occupied Territories. At their unscheduled meeting in Oslo on 31 October, the Palestinian leader reportedly asked Barak to halt all settlement building and land confiscation during the final status negotiations. Barak ruled out anything of the sort, insisting that the only restraint on his settlement policies would be the "law" (Israeli, not international). He also prevailed on Arafat to refrain from making any contentious statements in Oslo lest they poison the "positive and warm" ambiance created by Israel's "renewed commitment" to the peace process.
Arafat obliged, more or less. During his tribute speech to Rabin on 2 November, the Palestinian leader made only the most passing of references to issues like Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. But he did express "great concern over the destructive danger posed by the Israeli policy of settlements to the peace process, which has barely started to recuperate". Barak was reportedly "surprised and annoyed" by Arafat's departure from the Oslo script.
Other than that, the Oslo summit merely reconfirmed what had been confirmed prior to it. Thus the final status negotiations will now begin in earnest on 8 November, with the negotiating teams headed by PLO executive member, Yasser Abed Rabbo, on the Palestinian side and Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Oded Eran, on the Israeli. There will also be any number of "back-channels", including one between Arafat and Barak. "The two sides have not only named their teams. They have agreed that the two leaders will personally continue to meet as well", said Clinton on 2 November.
Arafat is likely to be less desirous of such a personal approach than either Clinton or his new "peace partner", Barak. Asked on 2 November by Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper whether he was in favour of a Camp David-like summit to close a Framework Agreement, Arafat replied: "We have no objections to such a meeting -- but it all depends on the progress of the negotiating teams in the coming days."
Given that the Palestinian team is not going to get any progress on the matter of settlements, the only progress it can hope for is that Israel will complete its "second" West Bank redeployment by January next. Should "progress" not be forthcoming -- and the final status talks stall -- Arafat is already pulling out what few arrows he has left in his quiver.
Thus while Arafat was saluting Rabin's image in Oslo, his cabinet secretary, Ahmed Abdul-Rahman, was announcing that the long dormant PLO Central Council would be reconvened in Gaza on 30 November. All the Palestinian factions would be invited to attend, said Abdul-Rahman, and the main discussion would be about "the date for the declaration of a Palestinian state".