As Ehud Barak flies to the U.S. this weekend for meetings with President Clinton and American Jewish leaders, the Israeli prime minister leaves behind a tumultuous series of events that underscore the surreal quality of the peace process.
Even as a major outbreak of violence in the territories continued — in which six Palestinians were reportedly killed in running gun battles with Israeli troops and more than 300 others injured — the Knesset approved giving full Palestinian control to three Arab villages near Jerusalem. Barak had pushed for the move as a goodwill gesture in seeking to create a more positive climate in the peace talks. But it led the National Religious Party, with five seats, to leave the government and further jeopardized the fragile ruling coalition, which faces other possible defections.
The fact that Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat conferred during the rioting and played down the conflict led some Mideast observers to conclude that the back-channel negotiations taking place in Sweden between the Israelis and Palestinians were producing positive results. The sense was the two leaders were keeping their eyes on the big picture and trying not to let the rioting throw them off track.
The violence was all too real, though it meant different things to each side. Palestinians said the outbreak, on the anniversary of the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” marking Israel’s statehood in 1948, underscored the frustration of many of their people with the pace of the peace process and apprehension about major compromises that may yet come.
For many Israelis, more than 70,000 of whom rallied in Jerusalem Monday night to protest what they viewed as the piecemeal surrender of Jerusalem without getting anything in return, the surprise gunfire by Palestinian policemen earlier in the day only reinforced their worst fears.
“We said at the time of the Oslo peace talks, ‘Don’t give them [Palestinian police] guns because they will use them against us,’ ” said Benny Kashriel, leader of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. “And now, they are using them against us.”
Kashriel, in a phone interview from Israel, said he was particularly upset that Barak rose in the Knesset Monday to speak in favor of giving the Palestinians complete control of the three neighborhoods adjacent to Jerusalem — Abu Dis, Eizariya and Suwahra — without mentioning the violence being waged in the streets.
(The Knesset approved the transfer by a vote of 56-48, but because of defections from Barak’s coalition, the 10 Israeli Arab members of the Knesset provided Barak with his margin of victory. Barak, justifying the move, said the alternative would be a “binational state, apartheid and bloodshed.”)
“He did not mention one word of the shootings or condemn them, and four soldiers had already been wounded,” said Kashriel of Barak. “It was the saddest moment of my life to see my prime minister giving in, hesitating, confused and afraid of Arafat.”
Fifteen Israeli soldiers were injured in Monday’s clashes, the worst rioting in two years. It started with two minutes of silence to mark what the Palestinians call the Day of Catastrophe, Israel’s Independence Day on May 15, 1948. That was followed by demonstrations throughout several areas of the West Bank and Gaza that was soon punctuated by attacks on Israeli troops manning checkpoints. Stones and molotov cocktails were hurled at the troops, who replied with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
But as the rioting continued, gunfire rang out in many villages from Palestinian policemen positioned like snipers behind the stone throwers. In one incident, Israeli troops hugged a building for protection, only to have Palestinians on the rooftop above hurl construction debris — wood planks and cement blocks — down on their helmet-covered heads.
The violence caught many by surprise, especially coming on the day the Knesset voted to turn over Abu Dis and the other two villages. The American Jewish Congress, a strong supporter of the peace process, questioned whether it made sense for the Palestinians to “renew intifada-like violence while the Israeli government is doing its damndest to make this arrangement politically feasible and effective.”
There were clashes again in several cities on Tuesday, but this time Palestinian police moved in to quell the disturbances. At least 10 Palestinians were injured when Israeli troops opened fire with rubber-coated bullets; Palestinians claimed some live ammunition was also used.
The fighting in Ramallah occurred only a short distance from where U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross met with Arafat before meeting later in the day with Barak. He later told CNN that he was convinced both sides were serious about the peace process and that there was a determined effort to calm tensions.
“We are dealing with a conflict that has been one of the most intractable over the last hundred years and yet now there is an opportunity, and both leaders see it, to end this conflict,” he said.
Ross had flown to Jerusalem from Stockholm, where he had participated in once secret back-channel peace talks both sides have conducted for several weeks. One of the Israeli negotiators, Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, said the talks were aimed at sufficiently bridging the gaps in positions to warrant a summit meeting. He said it would be held in Washington in a month or two and include Arafat, Barak and President Bill Clinton.
Barak, who is to meet with Clinton in Washington next week, told Israel Radio Wednesday that he hoped the Stockholm talks would forge a permanent agreement on the final status of the Palestinian territories.
“I think there will be difficulties, but both parties understand that the alternatives are forcing them to make progress towards an accord,” he said. “We hope to reach a settlement with the Palestinians and it is important that the nature of the discussions [in Stockholm] remain a secret.”
Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official of the State Department, said that what is “shaping up is the third in a series of agreements started by [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, [Jordan’s King] Hussein and now Arafat. Agreements made by the leadership have been resisted and resented by elements in all three communities. But we would not have gotten anywhere if the leaders were not ready to take risks.”
A spokesman for the Israeli government, Moshe Fogel, said in a phone interview from Israel said that in the upcoming talks Arafat “will have to be forthcoming. He will have to make the difficult decisions, otherwise there will be no agreement.”
The opposition Likud Party introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at tying Barak’s hands in the talks. One bill would forbid him from changing or surrendering any part of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. The other would prohibit Palestinian refugees from returning to the territories. Some members of Barak’s coalition said they would support the bills.
Some Israelis see the legislation as necessary because of Barak’s decision to turn over the three villages adjacent to the eastern portion of Jerusalem despite an opinion poll Monday in which 57 percent of Israeli said they opposed it. Another 67 percent said it would adversely affect Jerusalem’s security.
“What Barak did was something undemocratic because [most] Israelis were against giving up Abu Dis,” said Kashriel.
And he said he feared Barak would knuckle under again to Arafat because of the recent violence.
“He showed Barak that this is what he will do from Abu Dis [shoot at Israeli soldiers] if he does not get Jerusalem,” said Kashriel.
Fogel said Barak is demanding a full explanation of what happened Monday, why it happened, how it can be prevented in the future and what action Palestinian authorities are taking against those who fired their weapons. And he said that because “most of the shooting came from the Palestinian police force … in many of the situations they were shooting indiscriminately and hitting Palestinians.”
He said also that one should not dwell on Abu Dis because there is “a lot more at stake in terms of the overall negotiations. … We have to work out a framework agreement that will put those issues that can’t be resolved aside and work out a final-status agreement that will stand the test of time and assure us of several years of working together in terms of reaching an overall agreement.”
Among the key issues to be resolved are the future of Jerusalem, Israel’s borders, the future of the Jewish settlements in the territories and the return of Palestinian refugees.
But Murphy said the agreement both sides are striving to achieve by Sept. 13 may be nothing more than a promise to keep talking. And he noted that that is the same date Arafat has promised to declare a Palestinian state.
“If it is true that there is less opposition in Israel to a Palestinian state, it could happen this year,” he said. “And it may be a state without borders, which for me is a novel concept. The battle would then move to a negotiation of what statehood means.”
But Meir Nitzan, the mayor of Rishon Lezion, Israel’s fourth largest city just south of Tel Aviv, voiced pessimism about any peace accord. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek to destabilize the region for the next 18 months in order to win Russia a role in the Middle East.
“I hear Syria is buying more armaments from Russia, and they are not for peaceful purposes,” he said, adding that Syrian President Hafez Assad recently flew to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to jointly “prepare for war” against Israel.
“Assad told Mubarak not to let the Palestinians reach an agreement [with Israel] because he hasn’t finished the job of occupying Israel and destroying it completely,” Nitzan said he imagined.
“I’m afraid that we are going too far, too fast [in the peace process],” Nitzan added. “The political system in Israel shows that it is unstable and I’m afraid the Arabs are interpreting that as weakness. That’s not true because if it comes to a war, we’ll do the best, as we do in every war.”