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Peace talks: a kind of peace, perhaps.

Recent developments in the Middle East have led to the astonishing prospect of a peace agreement between the PLO and Israel. Unfortunately, whatever Arafat and Rabin may decide upon outside the forum of the official talks, it may not be a lasting resolution of the problem. Andrew Album assesses the state of play as seen from the Israeli point of view, and Mariam Shahin reports from the equally crucial Jordanian and Palestinian perspective.

THE EUPHORIA of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference when Arab and Israeli leaders sat facing each other across the negotiating table has become a distant memory. Optimism and anticipation had been replaced by despair and inertia as the official talks ground to a halt. Occasionally, there have seemed to be flickerings of progress, particularly in the sphere of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, with the possibility of a compromise over the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace agreement seeming a possibility.

It also appeared that the Jordanian and Israeli negotiators knew what the deal would be, but were waiting for a comprehensive regional agreement to be agreed upon. But on the Palestinian front, even with the inclusion of Feisal Husseini in the negotiating team, the prospects of an agreement appeared extremely remote.

However, in secret, negotiations were taking place which would turn the seemingly impossible into a reality - a chance of lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israel. In quick succession, apparently unbelievable revelations came out in the open, one after each other, culminating in the ceremony in the gardens of the White House in Washington on 13 September when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat guardedly shook hands for the first time and an agreement was signed.

Several commentators had previously given their opinion that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would not be made at the peace talks in Washington, but would require the establishment of secret negotiations between the parties which would be conducted in parallel but separate to the formal talks in the US capital. It is understood that such contacts began last year. Initial, tentative links were established between the Israeli journalist, Ron Pundak, and Haifa University's Middle East specialist, Yair Hirschfield and the PLO's Ali Karah (also known as Abu Alla) a close aid of Yasser Arafat.

However, the turning point came in the middle of last year, when Terje Roed-Larsen, who heads a Norwegian trade union think-tank, came to Israel for research purposes. By the time he left a few months later, the necessary links had been established, as the group established a rapport with both Israeli officials and leading Palestinian figures in the Occupied Territories. The catalyst proved to be a member of the research team, who is the wife of Norway's foreign minister, Johan Joergen Holst. Holst was to play the role of honest broker between Israel and the PLO.

On the Israeli front the deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, was a key figure. A close associate of the foreign minister, Shimon Peres, he provided the necessary link with the senior echelons of the Jerusalem administration. In subsequent months, the Norwegian government was to play a key role in the developing process. The left of centre government of Gro Harland Brundtland was able to enjoy the trust of both parties due to the fact that the country was perceived to be neutral and non-aligned.

A number of meetings took place in Norway at various locations, including an isolated farmhouse, the home of Norway's foreign minister, several "safe houses" of the Norwegian foreign ministry and, on one occasion, a hotel in the Norwegian capital Oslo. In the intervening period, Holst actively mediated between the parties initiating regular telephone discussions in order to bring the two sides closer together and resolve areas of disagreement.

Shimon Peres played a pivotal role in this developing process and, in spite of his well known rivalry with Rabin, he was able to bring the Israeli leader around to the idea that progress would only be made through direct negotiations with the PLO. President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader, was also called in to assist with the negotiations.

Then, on August 27, the story broke around the world as Peres flew to San Francisco with Holst to advise US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the dramatic developments which had occurred. The Israeli-Palestinian agreement itself consists of a declaration of principles which is supported by a memorandum of clarification and four annexes dealing with the withdrawal of Israeli forces, economic co-operation, the involvement of neighbouring countries and the elections which are to be held in the territories. Both sides were forced to make major concessions.

The PLO agreed to defer such matters as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees (it is estimated that only 31.2% out of a total of 5.8m Palestinians currently reside in Israel and the Occupied Territories) until the final settlement.

In return, the PLO has received control of Gaza and a foothold in the West Bank in the town of Jericho. Furthermore, the way was paved for the United States to recognise the PLO and resume bilateral dialogue. This in turn should lead to a resolution of the PLO's chronic financial predicament.

From the perspective of the Israeli right, the argument in favour of making concessions at the peace talks had seemed to be weaker than ever. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the initiation of the new post-Cold War world, rejectionist Arab states had lost their major patron and supplier of arms. In the new climate which prevailed, Israel was able to establish diplomatic ties with a number of countries - including Russia and China - as well as experiencing a warming of relations with a number of other states.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had served to push a number of more moderate Arab regimes closer to Washington and led to the diplomatic isolation and financial crippling of the PLO after its excommunication by Saudi Arabia due to Arafat's support of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, the Israel economy had been experiencing a period of rapid development GDP growth was one of the highest in the world in 1992 - and the influx of immigrants from the Soviet Union bolstered the Jewish majority in the country and seemed to diminish the demographic threat posed by a rapidly growing Palestinian population.

The intifada appeared to be petering out as Palestinians in the Occupied Territories grew weary of their battle and, whilst the light at the end of the Israeli-Syrian tunnel at the peace talks seemed to be growing steadily brighter, the Israeli-Palestinian "track" in the talks had ground to a halt.

What many on the Israeli right failed to realise is the old adage in the world of diplomacy - the best time to make concessions is when you can do so from a position of strength. It was the weakness of the PLO and the strength of Yitzhak Rabin's hand that enabled him to secure a deal which, whilst requiring significant concessions, was also far less than even the demands of the more moderate Palestinians.

After 45 years of demanding statehood, the PLO was being forced to change by the circumstances which prevailed. As one Israeli commentator summed it up, "what began as a radical terrorist group dedicated to the destruction of Israel has become a band of tired old men willing to recognise and legitimise the Jewish state."

In spite of the signing of the agreements in Washington, a number of issues remain unresolved as The Middle East went to print. These are tough issues which will need to be tackled by the negotiators before the "Gaza and Jericho first" option can be fully implemented. The unresolved matters include:

* the delineation of powers and responsibilities in the West Bank and Gaza between the two parties;

* the exact size of the Jericho area and how close it will extend to Jerusalem;

* the degree of control that the Palestinians will be able to exercise over the bridges linking the West Bank to Jordan;

* the exact scope of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and Jericho and how the army will interact with the new Palestinian police force;

* the number of Palestinians who will be allowed to continue working inside Israel and whether the pact will lead to economic disengagement or closer economic ties between the two sides.

In the light of the dramatic developments which have occurred in the last few months, it seems unlikely that the movement towards a full-scale and lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will falter as a result of any of the problems outlined above. The United States and other interested parties will seek to ensure these problems will be overcome, if not fully resolved. Of greater concern are four more significant matters each of which could serve to derail the peace process.

As outlined above, the final status of Jerusalem will be deferred until a final agreement is reached. Almost without exception, Israelis will settle for nothing less than complete control over a unified Jerusalem. The memory of how the city was administered before 1967 and the way in which access was denied to Jewish holy places and areas of settlement within the city serve as a stark reminder of where concessions will end.

Established ways of thinking and opinions have been radically shaken by recent events and some believe that this may force the mass of the Israeli electorate to reconsider their opinion of Jerusalem, just as they have been forced to slaughter other sacred cows.

However, the emotional and religious attachment that most Israelis feel to the holy city will tie Rabin's hands. One possible idea that has been floated by a ginger group within the Israeli Labour party would be to develop Palestinian "boroughs" within the Jerusalem area and for the Palestinians to be granted a large degree of autonomy and even self government (but not sovereignty) over these areas. Just as most Israelis seem unwilling to make any concessions regarding Jerusalem, the Palestinians will adamantly stick to their "right of return". One factor which has driven the Palestinians through their years of conflict with Israel is the belief that they have been wronged and dispossessed. Even though it now seems that these two peoples are prepared to accept that the land to which they both claim title should be divided between them, most Palestinians will want this wrong to be addressed.

In time, it seems inevitable that Yasser Arafat would push to be able to accept Palestinian exiles into the area which he administers, although economic realities would preclude him from doing this in the initial period. It is equally certain that Israel would not allow Palestinians to return to Jaffa, Haifa or the Galilee.

Some have suggested that financial compensation be paid to those who are denied their right of return and this is something which is being addressed by the US and those European and Arab countries prepared to provide financial assistance.

On both sides, the rejectionists continue to pose a major threat to the success of the peace agreement. Palestinian rejectionist groups have already begun to co-ordinate their opposition to the agreement and they will be a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, there have already been calls for the assassination of Arafat and other PLO leaders. Once ensconced in Jericho, however, the PLO leadership will wish to cement its control and power.

Hamas will be a key target and will be dealt with ruthlessly. The Israeli and Jordanian security services, will no doubt assist Arafat in this regard. But the key to ensuring the success of deal on the Palestinian side is the degree of economic aid which is forthcoming and whether this aid is used effectively to foster economic development and provide jobs to the residents of the Occupied Territories.

In Israel, Yitzhak Rabin faces a similar threat from rejectionist forces. Large scale demonstrations have already taken place as the Israeli right wing and settler movements have mobilised support. The opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not surprisingly come out fiercely against the agreement.

During a recent debate in the Knesset, he charged that Shimon Peres was worse than Neville Chamberlain, Britain's champion of appeasement towards Nazi Germany, because Chamberlain threatened the security and freedom of another nation, whilst Peres threatened the security and freedom of his own nation.

Many rejectionists in Israel have gone further and have stated that they are not prepared to play by the rules of democracy but will resort to any tactic necessary to ensure that the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel is not threatened.

Their cause is strengthened by the precarious position of the Rabin government in the Knesset. The Labour-led coalition has a wafer-thin majority and, with the recent resignation of two ministers belonging to the ultra-orthodox Shas party, he may only be able to secure a majority through the support of the small Arab parties who are not formally a part of the government. Rabin knows only too well that he would not be able to proceed on this basis and is desperately trying to secure the support of other ultra orthodox factions in the Knesset to ensure a "Jewish majority".

There have been many calls for a referendum in Israel - in spite of the fact that the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt was not voted on by the people but was implemented on the basis of a vote in the Knesset. So far, Rabin has stated that he is opposed to the idea but, with opinion polls showing support for the plan increasing and now standing at around 62%, Rabin may have no alternative but to go to the people.

His dramatic stopover in Morocco to meet with King Hassan on his way back from the signing ceremony in Washington was an astute move in this process. As the Israeli electorate comes to realise that a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement really is on the cards, support for the agreement should grow and, for Rabin, a referendum may become a more preferable option than a narrow victory in a parliamentary vote.

He will be helped by the fact that cracks and divisions are already being seen in the Israeli opposition. Some on the moderate right are horrified by the way in which many, including a number of members of the main opposition Likud party, are willing to abandon democracy over this issue.

Three members abstained during a recent Knesset vote on the plan. If opinion polls show support for the agreement to grow even further, then the Likud may be split over the issue. There is even talk of defections over this matter and the name of David Levy, a former foreign minister and adversary of Netanyahu, has been mentioned on several occasions in the Israeli press.

The road ahead is certainly a bumpy one with many pitfalls remaining. But the momentum created may prove irreversible. For, in spite of all the potential problems that remain, it seems hard to believe that the parties could return to the positions which they held only a short few months ago.

Furthermore once the "Gaza and Jericho first" plan is seen to be working - it is fully possible that Rabin would then be able to sell a withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a wider and longer-term peace agreement with Syria to the more sceptical elements of Israeli public.

This really could usher in a new era in the region, though it is hard to discern what shape it will take.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Middle East peace talks
Author:Shahin, Mariam; Album, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Saudis take a detour.
Next Article:Peace talks: Jordan's time for decision.

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