As Israeli leaders waited for Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to signal an easing of his uncompromising position on Jerusalem, they were pessimistic that it would come in his talks here this week with President Bill Clinton.
“The question is whether there will be a breakthrough,” said Colette Avital, a Knesset member who traveled here with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “If there is, it may not be in the short conversations of this week. The only question is whether Clinton will feel there is enough” movement in those talks to again bring Arafat and Barak together to seek a final peace accord. A 15-day summit at Camp David collapsed July 25 over the issue of Jerusalem.
The three leaders were here to attend this week’s United Nations Millenium Summit, which brought more than 150 world leaders to the East Side of Manhattan.
In a meeting Monday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Barak said it might be a few more weeks before he knows if Arafat has decided to become a “partner for peace.” Annan said “the end of September” was the target date to conclude an agreement.
But Avital said the deadline is closer to the end of October because that is when the Knesset is scheduled to reconvene from its three-month summer recess, “and we need to vote to have a budget approved.” For that to happen, Barak needs to have the support of at least 61 Knesset members. He can count on only 42 now.
“If he becomes convinced that there is no real possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians, he can go with a national unity government” that would include the Likud Party headed by Ariel Sharon, Avital said. She added that such a government would not put the peace process as a first priority.
Were that to happen, Avital said, Barak would be in a position to tell the world that he had “done the maximum possible to explore and to reach an agreement and the other side is not ready yet. … He is going to give it his best, but it takes two to tango.”
She said she believes Arafat has been reluctant to compromise on Jerusalem because he “cannot come back to his people and say, ‘I’ve given up your rights.’ But instead of saying that, he has to say, ‘I’ve come with the gift of life and given you independence.’ He should say that this was a great achievement that nobody thought he would get 10 years ago.”
Although none of the outstanding issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians has been resolved, the future of Jerusalem is said to be the main stumbling block. Should it be resolved, it is believed that the other issues would fall quickly into place.
Israel is reportedly willing to suspend sovereignty over the Temple Mount, giving the Palestinians custodianship over the site. It is also said to be willing to divide East Jerusalem into two sections, giving the Palestinians the Christian and Muslim quarters and retaining the Jewish and Armenian quarters, as well as the Western Wall. Arafat has insisted on full sovereignty over all East Jerusalem, except for the Western Wall and the Jewish quarter.
Arafat told foreign ministers at an Arab League meeting last Sunday that any peace agreement would have to apply UN Resolution 242 to Jerusalem. The resolution calls for a withdrawal from territories Israel captured in the Six-Day War in 1967. In addition, he said UN Resolution 194, regarding the right of return of refugees, would also have to be honored.
In a five-minute address to the Millenium Summit Wednesday, Barak spoke of the importance of Jerusalem to Jews worldwide for the last 2,000 years. But he said also that “Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, now calls for a peace of honor, of courage and of brotherhood. We recognize that Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims and Christians the world over, and cherished by our Palestinian neighbors. A true peace will reflect all these bonds. Jerusalem will remain united and open to all who love her.”
Barak said that success means that “no side an achieve 100 percent of its dreams,” and he said Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon shows that it “can make painful decisions for the sake of peace. It remains to be seen whether our counterparts are also capable of rising to the magnitude of the hour.”
Bearing in mind Arafat’s promise to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state Sept. 13, Barak asked all UN member states to “oppose any unilateral measures, which may well spark a renewed cycle of violence and obliterate the prospects for peace.”
The PLO’s Central Council is to meet this weekend to decide whether to hold fast to the Sept. 13 date or to postpone it until later in the year. There were hints this week that the date may be moved. The head of the PLO’s political department, Faruq Qaddumi, said Monday that Sept. 13 was not a “sacred date.”
Although there were reports that Clinton was prepared to take Barak and Arafat to a Camp David summit as early as this weekend should he see any signs of progress, all sides were pessimistic as Clinton prepared to meet individually with the two men.
Last week, Israel’s Knesset Speaker, Avraham Burg, told reporters at the UN that no one could predict whether a summit meeting between Barak and Arafat would emerge from this week’s talks. But such a meeting, he said, is “vital” to achieving a peace agreement.
“If we don’t have by the end of September the kind of breakthrough that leads us to a final arrangement with the Palestinians … the future of the peace process is not optimistic,” he said.
That final arrangement would have to include a resolution of the issue of refugees, borders, a Palestinian state, and a mutual respect by Muslims and Jews for what is sacred to the other, he said.
Asked what kind of support Arafat might expect for neighboring Arab nations, Burg said “they had wished him good luck, told him to go for it and said they would be there to support him.”
Avshalom Vilan, a member of the Knesset from the Meretz Party who traveled to the U.S. this week with Barak, said the “Arab nations prefer that Arafat make the decisions so that the responsibility is on his shoulders and not theirs. That way, the moment it doesn’t work, he will be the bad guy and they will stay on the sidelines.”
Vilan, a co-founder in 1978 of Israel’s Peace Now movement, said that although he is optimistic that eventually Israelis and Palestinians will live side-by-side in peace, he was uncertain about the near future.
“At this moment, even those of us in the peace camp, believe there must be some limitation [to what Israel can give up for peace],” said Vilan. “We are ready to go very far in trying to close a deal with the Palestinians, but it doesn’t mean at any price.”
“If Arafat does not move and we find ourselves in a dead-end situation,” he added, “the feeling is that the window of opportunities in the short-run will be closed. The political situation in the Middle East then can be dangerous because the alternative to talks is violence from all sides.”