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Dangerously aggrieved.

NOT surprisingly, the Arab-Palestinian confrontation is taking two widely divergent paths since the historic Washington meeting between the Israeli and PLO leaders in September. On the diplomatic front, the peace plan is underway, though the approach on both sides is now more sober than euphoric.

On the ground, by contrast, there are mounting signs of discord, not only between the two camps but within them as well. The question to be asked is: on which level of the confrontation will the outcome be determined?

This month, Israeli troops are due to start withdrawing from Jericho and the Gaza Strip. In Cairo last month, Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, had their second meeting, though unlike the Washington encounter there were no handshakes. This was a sternly workmanlike session which settled on the establishment of four joint committees to sort out the details of the agreement.

The most important, headed by Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, and the Abu Mazen, effectively Arafat's second in command, will meet in Cairo to resolve political issues and oversee the peace process.

Other committees will discuss economic, security and Palestinian election issues. In addition, a "working group", represented on the Palestinian side by Feisal Husseini, de facto leader of the Palestinian delegation at the Washington peace talks, will deal with the issue of Jerusalem.

So far so good, even if there are massive obstacles to be overcome. Some of these, such as the safety of Israeli settlers in the territories to be surrendered to the PLO and the precise demarcation of the Jericho enclave, are resolvable. More fundamental is the huge gulf which separates Israeli and PLO ideas about an ultimate settlement.

Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories themselves a scenario very different from that at the negotiating table is being played out. After the Washington agreement, Israeli forces were still carrying out tough search-and-arrest operations in the Gaza Strip entailing more Palestinian deaths. Early in October, unknown gunmen shot three Israeli hikers in the Jericho area, a car bomb exploded against a bus carrying Israeli soldiers and a presumed Palestinian terrorist was blown out of the water from a sea scooter off the Lebanese coast. There will be much of this from both sides in the weeks and months to come.

Left to themselves, Arafat and Rabin could undoubtedly come up with a deal satisfactory to both. But they each have deeply divided constituencies to assuage, elements of which on both sides will prove irreconcilable. Rabin has made the gesture of agreeing to release some of the 14,000 Palestinian prisoners in detention.

But he remains wedded to his "iron fist" policy of maintaining security and there is nothing in the accord with the Palestinians to deter him from launching further incursions into south Lebanon.

His coalition government is shaky and he has to take into account the bitter opposition to recognition of the PLO on the Israeli right wing. News of the killing of the hikers near Jericho last month was greeted by the opposition Likud party as "another painful testimony to the wretchedness of the deal made with one of the Palestinian terror organisations".

The Palestinians are even more divided. Several of Arafat's top aides have quit in disgust at the peace accord. A purge is reportedly underway to weed out doubters within the PLO (notably among the security service, which is a mark of the leadership's nervousness). The Islamists, represented by Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are adamantly opposed to the path Arafat is following. The secular rejectionist groups in Damascus have sworn to take no part in the PLO chairman's compromises.

Ahmed Jibril (whose interview appears on page 12 of this issue) has gone so far as to threaten Arafat's life. There have already been reports of an attempt to blow up the PLO chairman's private plane after the Washington meeting. Arafat's death would almost certainly bring the Israeli-PLO talks to a halt.

The one person able, however uncertainly, to maintain a semblance of cohesion within the mainstream Palestinian movement would be removed. And Rabin, having reluctantly agreed to talk to Arafat, would scarcely be likely to take a gamble on anyone else in the confused constellation of competing Palestinian groups.

Short of elminating Arafat, do the rejectionists stand a chance of derailing the Israeli-PLO talks? The dozen or so groups based in Damascus have only a small hard-core following, show as much interest in squabbling among themselves as opposing Arafat's mission (they have yet to come up with a coherent idea of how to do it) and are heavily dependent on Syrian support.

If their host, President Assad, manages to broker a deal through President Clinton (as is increasingly suggested), the rejectionsts would be left entirely isolated. But there is no mistaking their conviction and their potential appeal.

"Our Palestinian programme, that of the PLO, includes the right of return |of refugess outside the Occupied Territories~, self determination and an independent state," George Habash, the veteran PFLP leader stated last month. "The agreement makes no rule on these subjects.

"On the contrary, it doesn't include Israeli withdrawal, Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements which will remain where they are." If Arafat cannot deliver at least the prospect of a respectable agreement with Israel, it will be precisely these grievances which will ignite a new intifada.
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Title Annotation:The Middle East; Middle East peace talks
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Of fantasy and legends.
Next Article:Saudis take a detour.

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