In meetings with President Bill Clinton in Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is expected to lay out his vision for cementing peace treaties with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. The summit follows a week of confidence-building, ice-breaking meetings with Arab leaders that generated high expectations.
Clinton has said he has his own peace proposals, and the two men are expected to try to crystallize them all when they meet again Monday with their staffs in attendance.
“We’re going to examine in Washington ways to carry out the Wye accords,” Barak adviser Zvi Stauber told Israel radio, referring to last October’s Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the London-based Arabic magazine Al Wasat that peace could be achieved in the Middle East within a year. She is expected to fly to the region next month to meet with Syrian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Barak’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, froze the Wye agreement in December, claiming the Palestinians had refused to implement their end of the deal — cracking down on terrorists. The accord was worked out between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat — with plenty of nudging by Clinton in Wye, Md. It called for Israel to turn over another 13 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian rule, which already was in place over 27 percent of the territories.
Netanyahu implemented the first of three redeployments — putting 2 percent of Israeli-controlled land under joint control — before freezing the agreement. At their 75-minute meeting Sunday, Arafat asked Barak to complete the deal. But Barak proposed implementing only elements of the accord, saying that with Arafat’s approval he would like to integrate the rest with the final-status agreement he hopes the two hammer out in coming months. At their joint press conference, Arafat appeared to buy into Barak’s proposal.
“We believe that we need to do both — implement Wye and move to final-status negotiations,” he said.
Arafat also gave Barak the two months he sought to formulate his peace proposals. Substantive talks would therefore begin after the Jewish holidays. Barak is now expected to seek Clinton’s approval for his proposals, citing Arafat’s refusal to flatly reject a reworking of Wye.
But in an interview, Barak made clear that Washington would only be a facilitator. “It’s up to us, the players,” he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, said the Washington talks would focus also on what concrete steps Israel is willing to take on the Syrian front.
“To what degree can Barak coordinate his strategic approach on dealing with the Palestinians and Syrians with the U.S.?” he asked. “Barak is seeking an overall reworking of Wye. Can he count on American support regarding the red lines he wants to set with the Palestinians in delaying the third Wye withdrawal?”
The Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted advisers to Barak as saying he would link the delayed implementation of the Wye accord with a promise to recognize a Palestinian state when a final peace agreement is signed. It said Barak would argue that full implementation of Wye would take too long because of the need to verify Palestinian compliance with security arrangements.
Instead, Barak would press for a final peace pact within 12 to 18 months, during which all of the thorny issues would be resolved: Palestinian borders and refugees, and the future of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the territories.
In return for the rewriting of Wye, Barak would order the early release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and take steps to resuscitate the Palestinian economy, according to the paper.
In an interview before his departure for Washington, Barak reportedly said he would give Arafat a date by which Israel would return all of the land called for in Wye, even if the final-status talks have not been completed. But he argued that implementation of the accord now “is too risky” because it might trigger a terrorist attack that would “kill the whole process.”
At his meeting with Arafat, the Palestinian leader promised what Barak wanted to hear — that there would be “zero tolerance” for terrorism. Barak in turn promised Arafat that he would launch three-pronged talks simultaneously to develop Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian peace accords.
Barak reportedly did not mention to Arafat his anger over the Palestinians’ insistence on convening a United Nations meeting in Geneva this week to consider possible sanctions against Israel for its settlement policy. The U.S. and Israel were to boycott the meeting, and at the last minute the Palestinians said they would adjourn the session after an hour’s worth of formal remarks without taking any action.
At his meeting with Arafat, Barak pledged not to permit new settlement construction or to dismantle existing settlements.
But on Monday, Barak told settlement leaders that although he viewed the settlements as a “very important enterprise,” he was committed by Wye to ceding land to the Palestinians. And Israel’s new industry and trade minister, Ran Cohen, announced the suspension of all government funding for the construction of new factories in the West Bank and Gaza.
Barak also told representatives of settlements in the Golan Heights that he was convinced Syria was prepared to sign a peace treaty that would contribute to Israel’s security. Syria has said that any agreement would be conditioned on Israel’s return of the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the Six-Day War in 1967. The Golan representatives reportedly asked that Barak permit the Jewish settlements to remain as part of any peace agreement.
In addition to Arafat, Barak met in the last seven days with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. The Jordan Times welcomed Barak’s visit, but many Jordanians were skeptical.
Nazih Amarin, a member of parliament, told The Jewish Week that “peace between governments isn’t enough. We’re looking for peace between people and we don’t have that.”
He blamed Israel for imposing trade restrictions that have crippled the flow of Jordanian goods to the West Bank and Gaza. Amarin claimed Israel is seeking to maintain a trade monopoly over the territories.
A Christian relief worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said Jordan’s severe economic recession has prompted people to use Israel as a scapegoat.
“It’s kind of natural,” he said. “The average salary is only about $3,000 per year, whereas in Israel it’s close to $17,000. The discrepancy is hard to swallow, especially for people of Palestinian stock.”
Some were willing to give Barak a chance. Said Ranya, 26: “I want peace between us because my sister lives in Israel. She married an Israeli Arab and lives in Nazareth.” Her desire, she said, was “security for everyone — Jew and Arab.”
The mood in Israel is one of great optimism that the country is finally on the road to a complete and comprehensive peace with all of its Arab neighbors, according to Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, who ran for the Knesset on Barak’s One Israel ticket.
“I think Israel now is more interested in trying to promote the peace process, and many people have that hope,” he said.
At the same time, he said Israelis were impressed that Barak was able to form a coalition government from groups that espouse diametrically opposing views. Since their government’s formation, he said, these groups have dropped their extreme slogans.
Israel correspondent Michele Chabin, in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.