Palestinian President Yasir Arafat refused in a letter this week to accede to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s request to link the Wye River accord to the final-status talks. But an Israeli political scientist said the issue is far from resolved.
“It’s still subject to negotiation and we won’t know the outcome for a couple of months,” said Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Wednesday that Barak and Arafat would meet later this week in an effort to resolve their differences.
Even as they prepared to meet, Israel sealed off several Palestinian West Bank villages and warned Israelis of additional terrorist actions following two separate attacks Tuesday. In the first attack, 12 Israelis were injured when a Palestinian man twice drove his car into a group of Israeli soldiers at an intersection midway between Jerusalem and Gaza. The Palestinian was shot and killed.
That evening, a Jewish settler was shot and wounded by terrorists who ambushed him as he drove near his home in Mevo Dotan near the northwestern West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin. The settler, Eitan Vaknin, was able to drive to his home and was then hospitalized. The terrorists fled unto the Palestinian village of Arabe, which was one of the areas sealed off by the Israeli army. Authorities believe the attack was carried out by the same Hamas group that attacked an Israeli military patrol in the area a month ago.
On Saturday, an Israeli was shot dead by a gunman on the main Nablus-Jenin road. And last week a Jewish resident of Hebron was wounded in a drive-by shooting.
Barak said Tuesday that the attacks demonstrate the need for increased cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.
“We can expect further [terrorist] attempts in the near future against innocent women and children by radical groups that oppose the peace process,” he said.
Barak said also that Islamic officials had violated the law when they excavated a new opening to the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem earlier in the week. In the predawn hours Tuesday, Israeli police moved in and closed the opening. There were no Palestinian protests.
Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, told Palestinian radio Wednesday that he hoped both sides would find a formula within three days that would put the peace process back on track.
Barak has pledged to implement the second phase of Wye in October, a point to which Arafat conceded to this week after initially insisting that the process start in September. The second phase calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from another 5 percent of the West Bank. In the first phase, carried out late last year, Israeli troops withdrew from 2 percent of the West Bank.
The third and final phase of Wye, calling for an Israeli troop withdrawal from another 6.5 percent of the West Bank, is not slated to be implemented until mid-November. Arafat wants to keep to that timeframe, which he spelled out in a letter Abbas delivered to Barak Monday night. The two reportedly met in Barak’s home in Kokhav Ya’ir, near the West Bank.
Barak had proposed delaying that withdrawal until next February, to coincide with the hoped-for formulation of a statement of principles on the knotty final-status issues — the future of Jerusalem, the 200,000 Jews living in settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees, as well as the borders of any Palestinian state.
Barak’s argument was that implementation of the third phase of Wye would endanger 15 to 20 Jewish settlements that would be left totally surrounded by Palestinian territory.
Steinberg said he would not expect to see too much coming out of this week’s summit meeting between Arafat and Barak.
“I would not attach too much importance to a single meeting,” he said. “This is a process.”
But he said he believed Haaretz was right when it reported that Barak would offer several compromises to Arafat. Among them: completing the third phase withdrawal by January rather than February; allowing the Palestinians to start construction of their port in Gaza; and providing some economic benefits to the Palestinians, including easing restrictions on Jordanian imports to the territories.
“This will give the Palestinians something tangible,” said Steinberg.
He pointed out also that Wye calls for the Palestinians to take certain steps too, including collecting all unauthorized guns in the territories, ending incitement against Israel, and reducing the Palestinian police force from more than 40,000 to the proscribed 30,000.
Steinberg stressed that although Barak has pledged to carry out the Wye River accords even if Arafat does not agree to a delay, Barak still has the right under Wye to unilaterally delay implementation.
“In Wye it says that implementation of the accord is in parallel with final-status negotiations,” said Steinberg. “If Barak finds in three our four months that there has been no progress on final status, that would cause a crisis” and justify Barak’s delay of phase three.
At the time he took office last month, Barak announced four red lines that he would refuse to compromise on with the Palestinians: Israel would never return to its 1967 borders; Palestinians who fled their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 would not be permitted to return; Jerusalem would never again be divided; and there could never be a foreign army between Israel and the Jordan River.
“Barak is going to make the point [to Arafat] that on these points he is not going to concede,” said Steinberg. “In these upcoming negotiations, Barak will know if there is a chance for an agreement. If the Palestinians refuse to make these concessions, then the chances of a deal in the next year are small and Barak would not implement the last phase of Wye.”
He said Barak would emphasize to Arafat that unlike his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, he was fully committed to carrying out the Wye accord if the final-status talks progressed.
But Steinberg said his talks with Palestinians in the last two weeks have convinced him that many of them have not seriously considered the concessions they will have to make to bring about a peace settlement.
“Some of them want to put it off for months or even years,” he said. “But Barak will not proceed with redeployment” if that happens.