Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Dec. 2000 - 3 Jan. 2001
Issue No.514
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Israel must concede more

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The Palestinian blood that has been spilt in three months of violent clashes with the Israeli occupation forces is beginning to bear fruit. As the Intifada tips the balance of power to the advantage of the Palestinians, Israel is being forced to back down from its previous hard-line positions. The Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital is no longer an issue of contention. The Israelis also accept that at least 90 per cent of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza will be handed over to the Palestinian state.

Meeting separately with Clinton in Washington last week, the two sides appeared at first to have reached agreement on these points, but later admitted that differences remained on Jerusalem, security, refugees and borders. Still, Israel has certainly moved beyond the positions presented at last July's Camp David summit. That summit failed because the parties had agreed in advance that any partial agreements they succeeded in hammering out would not come into force if they failed to reach a comprehensive final status agreement. Although they did manage to agree on a number of the issues addressed at the summit, Jerusalem proved to be an insurmountable obstacle in the way of a comprehensive agreement, and they returned empty-handed to their respective constituencies.

What is new since the Intifada is that Israel is showing readiness to accept what it formerly refused, particularly in regard to East Jerusalem. But this is still not enough to satisfy the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians. Does this mean the Palestinians should continue to boycott negotiations and pin all their hopes on the Intifada, or should they, rather, accept the principle of resuming negotiations without giving up the Intifada?

Until recently, the Israelis made the resumption of negotiations conditional on a halt, or at least a substantial reduction, in the violence on the Palestinian street, which they insisted could only come about at the express order of the Palestinian Authority. But the Israelis can no longer pretend that the main source of violence is stone-throwing Palestinian children and not the tanks, missiles and helicopters used by the Israeli occupation forces against unarmed demonstrators.

And so they quietly set aside their demand for a halt to the violence and accepted Clinton's invitation to Washington for what many see as a last chance to negotiate a peace accord. On the other side of the confrontation line, the decision of the Palestinian Authority to accept the invitation without first demanding a halt to Israeli violence against the Palestinian people has sparked controversy throughout the Arab world. I believe it was the right decision as long as there is no giving in on the Intifada and provided the purpose of the new round of talks is to test the waters with a view to investing the tilt in the balance of power to greater advantage by wresting more concessions from the Israelis. Moreover, agreeing to a resumption of talks does not necessarily imply a commitment to crown those talks with an agreement.

Critics of Arafat's decision to pursue negotiations at this time claim it was taken from a position of weakness, not strength. While it may be true that Arafat is in a corner, it is nowhere near as tight a corner as that in which both Clinton and Barak find themselves.

Clinton's corner is represented in the fact that he has only a few weeks left in which to broker a deal between the parties. He has set a January 10 deadline for the conclusion of an agreement, albeit only a framework agreement. The outgoing president will spare no effort to have some kind of deal wrapped up before he leaves the White House on 20 January. He is desperate to crown his presidency with a spectacular achievement that can burnish an image badly tarnished by scandal, rehabilitate him for posterity, and possibly even earn him a Nobel peace prize.

Barak is even more desperate to strike a deal with the Palestinians before the special elections he has called for 6 February. He decided to resign to preempt the Knesset's initiative to disband in order to depose him. Unless he pursues an accelerated peacemaking initiative that will allow him to produce a peace accord before the elections, he faces likely defeat at the polls. Thus both the American president and the Israeli prime minister are in a race against time, and it is only thanks to the former's eagerness to finalise a deal before leaving office that the latter has been offered a final chance to make peace with the Palestinians and foil his opponents' attempts to oust him.

As to Arafat, his position is less critical. Failure to reach an agreement will not discredit him in the eyes of history, as it will Clinton, nor end his political career, as it will Barak's. Moreover, because of the political crisis in Israel, he has been able to resume negotiations without having to call an end to the Intifada. It is true that if no agreement is reached, Israel's economic blockade will continue, exposing the Palestinians to yet greater hardship. It is also true that if Barak disappears from the political scene Arafat will have to deal with Sharon, who would be even less likely to meet Palestinian demands. But the effect of these negative factors could be offset by the transfer of power in the United States to the Republicans, who have traditionally been less biased towards Israel than the Democrats. It will be remembered that the administration of Bush the father was one of the least pro-Israeli ever.

Barak's political fortunes are in such severe decline that several key politicians are scrambling to replace him as prime minister. Netanyahu made a bid for reelection but was forced to withdraw his candidacy because this would have required the dissolution of the Knesset, a procedure the religious party, Shaas, vigorously opposed, believing that new elections would be detrimental to its present representation in parliament, where it now holds 17 seats. Peres also tried but he too failed because the left-wing Meretz party refused to give him the backing he needed to present himself, on the grounds that two candidates from Labour would facilitate Sharon's victory in the election.

Meanwhile, Clinton is interested only in getting the parties to sign an agreement before he leaves office, not in how, or even whether, the agreement will be implemented. At the separate bilateral talks he held with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Washington, Clinton presented a paper he described as not being an "American proposal" but a summary of the results achieved in negotiations between the two sides after the Camp David summit. The paper is couched in abstract, ambiguous language that renders it susceptible of more than one interpretation, so that the resolution of whatever differences still exist is a problem that will arise in the future. This is probably the weakest point in the process now underway. The deliberately ambiguous wording of the document will operate to the advantage of Israel and Clinton at the expense of the Palestinians. The US and Israel, which control the world media, are in a position to present the agreement according to their interpretation of the text. This can neutralise the improvement in the Palestinian bargaining position brought about by the Intifada.

That is why the Palestinian Authority should regard the resumption of negotiations not as a step that must necessarily lead to an agreement, but as an opportunity to test the extent of change in the balance of power between the protagonists in the light of developments since the Intifada. In fact, the Intifada is the key to the entire situation. The positive momentum it has set in motion must be sustained, for it is in this that the strength of the Palestinian negotiating position lies, this that will allow those speaking in the name of the Palestinian people to refuse what does not satisfy their legitimate aspirations. Yes, an opportunity exists to achieve results, possibly better than at any other time in the past and perhaps also in the future. But much will depend on the ability -- and the courage -- not only to say yes, but also to say no, as Arafat did in Camp David.

Related stories:
Killing Christmas
An opportunity to end all war

Barak unmasked
Palestinian red lines 21 - 27 December 2000
Mission impossible? 21 - 27 December 2000
See Intifada in focus

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