Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat ultimately will have little choice but to accept Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s request to delay Israel’s hand-over of West Bank territory, a prominent Palestinian analyst predicted this week.
But, warned Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, “It will destroy the credibility, if any is left, of the Mideast peace process with the Palestinian public.”
That public, he added, unlike the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, “does have other options.”
Surveys conducted by his center show Arafat’s domestic popularity on a consistent downward spiral, said Khatib.
And while the PA government’s weak hand may force Arafat to accede to Barak’s wish, “It’s not easy to know where his limit is [with his public].”
Referring to the Palestinian uprising that surprised experts in 1988, Khatib noted that outside the political process, “Palestinians have experience in nonviolent and violent struggle.”
American Jewish Middle East analyst Steven Spiegel minimized the specter of such a popular backlash from what emerged this week as the first clash between Israel’s new prime minister and the Palestinians. But like Khatib, Spiegel, a Middle East expert at UCLA, said of the Palestinian leadership, “I think they are completely trapped. … They need Barak more than he needs them.”
Harsh new tones have invaded the hopeful rhetoric that until now has marked official exchanges between Barak’s month-old government and Arab leaders. The friction has been sparked by Barak’s repeated requests to delay fully implementing an agreement signed by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Though careful to say he will do so if the Palestinians insist, Barak has pressed them to forego the third redeployment of West Bank territory mandated under the Wye River Accord, last October’s agreement meant to revive the long frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process begun in Oslo.
A meeting Monday between negotiators of the two sides on Barak’s proposal broke up in acrimony, with Palestinian delegate Saeb Erekat speaking of a “real crisis.” But even Khatib said this characterization was premature.
The Wye accord, which mandates three West Bank land transfers prior to negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza, was frozen by Netanyahu after the first redeployment last December. Netanyahu charged the Palestinians had failed to hold up their end of the agreement on security measures.
But his suspension of the accord was widely seen as a response to hard-line opponents of territorial compromise, who threatened to pull out of his coalition and force new elections.
Their decision to ultimately do so anyway led to Barak’s landslide victory.
This week, Barak said he was prepared to undertake the second redeployment in October — some 10 months late under Wye’s timetable. The pullback will transfer about 5 percent of the West Bank to the PA, which already controls about 27 percent partially or fully.
But to the Palestinians’ consternation, Barak has warned of dire consequences if the PA insists on the third redeployment, which would involve another 7 percent of the land. He has pushed instead to go directly to final-status talks and fold the third transfer into this stage.
Unlike Netanyahu, Barak has no problem in principle with territorial compromise.
But the redeployment map he has inherited from his predecessor would leave a number of West Bank Jewish settlements as isolated islands deep within Palestinian-controlled areas.
This would lead to serious security dangers that could derail the peace process down the line, Barak claims.
Barak has also long criticized the whole concept of interim redeployments as conceived under the Oslo accords.
And his vision of final status, though more generous than Netanyahu’s, falls far short of the minimum the Palestinians say they can accept.
The subsequent pessimism about final results — and Barak’s failure so far to act on other issues such as recent settlement expansions — leads Palestinians to insist on getting what has already been agreed upon now, said Khatib, the Palestinian analyst.
“We have a saying in Arabic that a bird in the hand is better than 1,000 in the sky,” he explained.
But he added, “Unfortunately, I don’t see why things should turn out differently this time than they have up to now. Each time, Arafat has reached compromise agreements on earlier compromises, which then require later compromise.”
Spiegel, the UCLA analyst, said, “If the Palestinians insist on implementing Wye no matter what, Barak will do it. But then he will turn his major attention to negotiations with the Syrians. … There is no question in my mind that if Wye is implemented, final-status talks will not go fast.”
This week, each side sought to shore up its support. On a state visit to Moscow Tuesday, Barak received a warm welcome from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Russian leader voiced his readiness to assist in peace talks with Syria, and Barak welcomed his offer.
In Cairo, Arafat held talks with representatives of an important hard-line Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus that until now has opposed his decision to negotiate with Israel.
Palestinian officials said the main focus of discussions was Barak’s proposal to delay implementing the Wye accord.
Yossi Alpher, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office for Israel and Mideast Affairs in Jerusalem, saw the crux of the current dispute between Barak and Arafat as in part, “the final legacy of Netanyahu.”
Barak’s predecessor made a positive contribution by bringing Israel’s right wing to accept the concept of territory for peace, said Alpher, “but he destroyed Israel’s credibility as a country that keeps its agreements. As a result, Arafat interprets [Barak’s proposal] as just one more attempt to break out of agreements already signed.”
Alpher noted that former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who originally forged the Oslo peace process with Arafat, “were able to make changes in the Oslo agreement [with Arafat] because they trusted one another. Barak clearly has to re-establish Israeli credibility in Arafat’s eyes.”
But Shlomo Gazit, a retired general and former chief of Israeli military intelligence, retorted, “I don’t think the problem started with Netanyahu. It started almost immediately after the signing of Oslo.”
Gazit explained, “The whole concept of Oslo was, we can’t decide on final goals anytime soon, so let’s try a process of confidence-building measures to move toward this. But the result has not been any buildup of confidence.
“There has not been trust or good faith on either side for a long time,” he said.
Nevertheless, analysts stressed it was premature to see the current dispute as a profound crisis.
“We should take into consideration it’s very early with Barak,” said Khatib. “Traditionally, you give a new government 100 days.”