Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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'Handshakes are useless'

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ended his whirlwind trip to Washington expressing "satisfaction" with the results it is difficult to believe that either he or US President Bill Clinton can be truly happy with a Middle East peace "strategy" that currently appears to be imploding on all tracks.

During their meeting on Tuesday Washington shifted attention from the Syrian track to focus on saving Palestinian-Israeli talks as the clock ticks towards the 13 May deadline for reaching a framework agreement for final status issues. Shifting focus to the Palestinian track was also a must for Clinton in his quest to add more meat to Middle East peace-making before his eight-year tenure as president comes to an end.

For four hours Clinton and Barak hammered out a number of issues in "good, productive and serious" talks, according to a senior White House official. The discussions centred on speeding up the Palestinian track to reach a peace agreement by next September. According to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what remains is "an issue of calendar."

While Palestinian negotiators complained they were only "chatting," not negotiating with their Israeli counterparts at Bowling Air Force Base near Washington, Clinton was "encouraged that there is an intensification and renewed energy on the Palestinian track," according to senior officials. Clinton is due to meet with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on 20 April to brainstorm on what can be done next. "There's got to be willingness," said Clinton. "We've got to bridge some of these divides and make progress where we can."

While both Clinton and Barak voiced hope for swift progress towards Israeli peace with the Palestinians, prospects for re-launching the Syrian-Israeli track were publicly ignored by both leaders. So far, Washington says it has not received any feedback from the Syrians on ideas presented by Clinton to President Hafez Al-Assad last month in Geneva.

Administration officials told Al-Ahram Weekly that for the time being Washington will continue to focus on the Palestinian track and on supporting Israel's initiative for a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

"This policy is meant to pressure the Syrian leadership," according to diplomatic sources who preferred to remain anonymous, "because Clinton feels the heat of the setback he suffered in his failure to get Assad to accept the deal he offered [in Geneva]." To save face, the administration insists that the deal was based on Israeli, not American, ideas. But in Cairo, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer told reporters on Monday that Clinton was "not a mailman" going to Geneva but had "worked hard on a package."

More importantly, Barak walked away from Washington with complete US backing for his plan to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July. Ever since the failure of the Geneva summit, Barak had made a great effort to build up the maximum possible international consensus behind the withdrawal, and he seems to be making headway. Apart from the US, Barak has received signals from the European Union and the UN that their support will be forthcoming as long as the withdrawal is complete and in line with UN Security Council resolution 425.

As the peace process faces another crisis, Cairo believes that time is of the essence. "We are at the 11th hour," said Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. His statement came after talks between President Hosni Mubarak and Barak, who stopped over for talks in Cairo before heading to Washington on Monday.

"We do not have time to waste," Moussa said. "We have to rush towards an agreement, but this does not mean that there will be territorial concessions."

But it seems that Barak will not relent on policies which intimidate other peace players. As he met with Clinton, bulldozers were at work on the Golan Heights to build more settlements and Israeli air attacks against southern Lebanon continued.

Moussa succinctly summarised the current state of affairs. "There is no room for manoeuvres," he said. "The picture is bleak. Smiles, handshakes and photo ops are useless because we are at the final stages of negotiations."

Hoda Tawfik in Washington,
Graham Usher in Jerusalem,
Nevine Khalil in Cairo

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