Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Alone again

Ever since President Clinton announced the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria on 8 December, Yasser Arafat has been telling all and sundry that he welcomes "success" on all the tracks of the peace process and harbours "no fears" that movement on the Syrian front means sclerosis on the Palestinian. He is fooling nobody, writes Graham Usher from Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leader must surely be aware that the reactivation of the Syrian track marks a major gain for Israel's vision of peace in the Middle East. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak occasionally pays lip service to the idea that an agreement with the Palestinians is necessary for Israel to receive the stamp of "legitimacy" by the Arabs, the greater prize in his eyes has always been peace with Syria. For this would not only remove the threat of war on Israel's borders and consolidate Israel's position as the dominant military power in the region. It would reduce considerably the value of the "legitimacy" the Palestinians alone can bestow.

"It would be a huge strategic achievement for Israel," says Palestinian analyst, Mustafa Barghouti. If a peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon is secured, "Israel will have realised the goal it set for itself at the Madrid conference: complete peace with all the frontline Arab states without resolving in any complete way the Palestinian question".

Arafat's dilemma is exacerbated by virtue of his now being locked into an Israeli driven timetable for the next year that makes realisation of the "goal" much more likely. And he has already been warned of the price should he make any attempt to spring the cage.

During her meeting with Arafat in Ramallah on 8 December, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made it clear that the Americans would not intervene on the issues of Israel's second West Bank redeployment and settlement policies presently holding up the Israel-Palestinian negotiations. On the contrary, she made it absolutely clear that she expected the Palestinian leader to continue talking come what may in order to meet Barak's mid-February deadline for an Israeli-Palestinian "Framework Agreement" on Oslo's final status issues. Arafat, reportedly, agreed to do so.

Albright's insistence on this point is less because she (or Barak for that matter) believes that a binding Framework Agreement can be achieved in less than two months. Indeed, given the chasms that presently divide the two sides on all the final status issues a framework document will only be signed at all if "its wording is so nebulous as to be meaningless", predicts Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki.

It is rather that a signed Framework Agreement would enable Barak to trumpet success on the Palestinian track while freeing himself for truly substantive negotiations with the Syrians. For it is clear that if Barak wants to withdraw "by July 2000", Israeli soldiers from south Lebanon -- "in the context of an agreement with Syria" -- that agreement will have to be signed, sealed and voted on (by the Israeli electorate) no later than May or June. A timeline of this kind would also ensure that President Bill Clinton would leave the White House remembered for something more than the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress.

Given such high stakes, it is difficult to imagine Clinton (or the European Union) telling Arafat anything other than to keep a lid on the occupied territories and maintain the fiction of real negotiations on the framework agreement. And given Arafat's political dependency on the US and financial dependency on the EU, it is equally difficult to imagine him replying with anything other than a meek affirmative.

One obvious alternative of course would be for Arafat to coordinate his positions with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad with the same degree of foresight as Israel and the Americans have clearly coordinated theirs. It is not for the want of trying. In the last week, he has met with both President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah, urging them to get Damascus to agree, if not to a fully-fledged Arab summit, then at least to some form of "coordination" between the tracks. The answer to these overtures came on the White House lawn on 15 December when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara read his "prepared statement" before his negotiations with Israel.

"We are approaching the moment of truth," he read. "Everyone realises that a peace agreement between Syria and Israel and between Lebanon and Israel would mean for our region an end of a history of wars and conflicts, and may well usher in a dialogue of civilisation and honourable competition in various domains -- the political, cultural, scientific and even economic."

The absence of the words "Palestine" or even "Jerusalem" from this "vision" of a "just and comprehensive peace" was not lost on a single Israeli or Palestinian -- including Arafat.

Against the cold shoulders of Assad and Albright, the Palestinian leader could toy with the notion of triggering a calculated crisis over Israel's settlement policies, or, as he mused in newspaper interviews on 19 December, once more draw from his quiver the threat of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. But given his promises to Albright and the fact that, on 17 December, he again postponed a PLO Central Council meeting convened precisely to address both statehood and settlements neither option seems presently to be under consideration.

Far more likely is that Arafat will revert to type, and pray that the summer will be warmer for his people than is the winter. But if that sun refuses to rise, the Palestinians may well be entering the most fateful negotiations of their recent history from the corner where Israel has always wanted them consigned -- not only the weakest of Israel's rapidly diminishing Arab adversaries, but also the loneliest.

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