Even as formal talks began this week to develop a framework for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, there were growing indications that the real breakthroughs would come in direct talks between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and their back-channel emissaries.
At the same time, there was a renewed push to resume peace talks between Israel and Syria, with France acting as the catalyst with tacit American approval. The two sides have not spoken since negotiations broke down in 1996.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was to fly to Damascus late this week, just days after the son of ailing Syrian President Hafez Assad, Bashar, flew to Paris. After meeting Sunday with French President Jacques Chirac, Bashar Assad said talks with Israel could be resumed “if there are good intentions.” That same day, Barak praised the elder Assad and said talks would begin in the “next few weeks or months.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said of these developments: “There’s a lot of motion, but it’s not clear that there is much substance.”
He said the meeting in Oslo last week of Barak, Arafat and President Bill Clinton, followed by another Barak-Arafat meeting in Paris this week and the start of formal final-status negotiations, “showed just how far the gaps are. For the first time, both sides are realizing that the other side has red lines that are far away, and that there is not going to be quick progress. There was no flexibility in the Palestinians’ statements.”
These efforts came against a backdrop of another terrorist bombing, this time on a street corner in Israel’s northern coastal city of Netanya. Three pipe bombs injured 27 passersby on the eve of the start of the final-status talks. Arafat blamed the attack on a “conflict within the Israeli mafia”; Barak insisted that Islamic militants were responsible to express their opposition to the peace process.
The two leaders also clashed over Barak’s interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which calls upon Israel to return occupied land in return for peace. Barak said it does not apply to talks with the Palestinians because at the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, Jordan and not the Palestinians ruled the West Bank. Arafat replied that such a stance flies in the face of other Israeli-Palestinian agreements and actions.
This confrontation, according to Steinberg, highlights the difficulties that lie ahead. He said the “language of 242 is ambiguous because it calls upon Israel to withdraw from occupied territory, but not all the territory. [Former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin said that by withdrawing from the Sinai, we have fulfilled it.”
What Barak is doing by bringing up 242 now, said Steinberg, is telling Arafat that “his is not the only interpretation, so stop wasting time on it and trying to score points by waving 242 before us.”
Barak said this week that one element of Resolution 242 was the need to establish recognized and secure borders, and “you have to establish what secure means.” He noted that there are destabilizing forces in the region that continue to threaten Israel’s security and that while Israel would “leave no stone unturned on the way to peace, we are determined to deal very responsibly with the security problems.”
Barak’s vision for a final settlement, as leaked to the Israeli media this week, demonstrates his obsession with security. Rather than knuckling under to Arafat’s demand for the return of 90 percent of the West Bank, Barak wants to keep 30 to 40 percent — including three large blocks of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and along the 1967 border. Jerusalem would remain undivided but be expanded to include a Palestinian suburb the Palestinians could call the capital of their new, demilitarized state.
The timing of that leak came just days before Barak ordered the dismantling of Maon Farm, a settlement in the West Bank that was home to five families and about a dozen other people. Members of the Israel Defense Forces arrived before dawn Wednesday and several hundred protestors greeted them with burning tires, a wrecked car and name -calling. After physically removing them, the IDF knocked down whatever buildings were there. It was the last of 12 outposts Barak and the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza had agreed to dismantle.
It was in keeping with the provisions of the revised Wye River accords, as was Israel’s planned turnover next week of another 5 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.
These moves have upset many in the opposition Likud Party, including Uzi Landau, who told The Jewish Week that Israel continues to fulfill its commitments while the Palestinian Authority does not. He said the Palestinians have still not changed their covenant, which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel; have refused to extradite murderers Israel is seeking, and continues to “portray Jews as the enemies of mankind” in their schools and on television.
“We continue to let them off the hook,” he fumed.