Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak began preparing the country this week for the possibility that last-gasp peace efforts with the Palestinians would fail and that a regional war was increasingly likely, a glimmer of hope emerged.
The PLO representative in Washington, Hassan Abdel Rahman, told the Associated Press Wednesday that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat had given President Bill Clinton a qualified acceptance of bridging proposals Clinton outlined Dec. 23. The proposals, which Barak has conditionally accepted, reportedly call for Israel to give up control of the Temple Mount in exchange for the Palestinians dropping demands for the return of refugees.
Clinton and Arafat met for three hours at the White House Tuesday, during which Arafat sought clarifications of Clinton’s proposals.
Arafat adviser Abu Rudeineh, who attended the talks, told Voice of Palestine Radio that Clinton promised further clarification of some 25 points Arafat had raised.
“The situation is still difficult and complicated and it needs more effort in the next few days,” he said.
Against this backdrop came an ominous warning from Barak that a failure to reach a peace agreement “dramatically raises the possibility of regional deterioration” and that Israel may become even more isolated in the international community. He reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he was confident Israel could “win any regional war.”
Following his White House meetings, Arafat flew to Cairo for a conference Thursday of the Arab League, which planned to discuss Clinton’s proposals.
Palestinian officials said Clinton promised to convey their reservations to Barak and that the “ball is now in their court.” They said also that Clinton suggested that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators meet within days to resolve outstanding concerns, something the Palestinians did not rule out.
Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and a leader of the opposition Likud Party, said Arafat “wants to get the cover of the rest of the Arab world for either of two scenarios — if he says no, he needs the support of the Arab world, and if he says yes, he also needs it.”
But Shoval said he did not see how “Barak and Clinton can pull a rabbit out of a hat” and come up with the framework for a peace agreement acceptable to the Palestinians by Jan. 20, the day Clinton leaves office.
Rudeineh said he was equally dubious about a peace deal in the next two weeks, and the Palestinian Authority distributed a position paper to foreign consulates in Jerusalem that spelled out what it saw as some of the pitfalls in the proposal.
The PA complained that the Clinton proposal would divide a future Palestinian state into “three separate cantons,” split the Palestinian section of East Jerusalem into “a number of unconnected islands,” and compel the Palestinians to give up the right of return for 3.7 million Palestinians who were forced from their homes or fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
“The United States proposal seems to respond to Israeli demands while neglecting the basic Palestinian need: a viable state,” the position paper said.
In addition, it argued that the Clinton proposals needed clarification because a “vague agreement at this advanced stage of the peace process will be counterproductive. … The permanent status agreement must be a truly final agreement rather than an agreement to negotiate.”
Barak has conditionally accepted the Clinton proposals, which have never been officially released, saying they formed an acceptable framework for further negotiation. But Colette Avital, a Knesset member from Barak’s Labor Party, said the main issue that preoccupies Israelis is not the details of the Clinton proposals but whether Barak can legitimately negotiate an agreement.
She cited a letter to Barak from Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who last week wrote that although Barak could legally seek a negotiated settlement, it was morally wrong to do so after resigning last month to seek a new mandate from the public in elections Feb. 6.
Avital defended Barak’s efforts, saying: “He was not making an agreement, he was negotiating.”
Silvan Shalom, a senior member of the Likud Party, agreed with Rubinstein, saying Barak does not have the “moral mandate to go to for a peace agreement that would radically change the situation of the State of Israel. … This is something that is not done while the prime minister has no majority in parliament.”
He said Barak has adopted positions that are diametrically opposite the platform he ran on just a year ago.
“He said Israel would not return to its 1967 borders, that Jerusalem would not be divided and would remain united under Israeli sovereignty,” said Shalom. “Now he is willing to separate Jerusalem, to give up the Jordan Valley he had said he would not give up, and to give up the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, which he had said he was not willing to give up. If he wants to change his views, OK, but he can’t do that before there is a new mandate.”
But citing increased violence — punctuated by a car bomb in Netanya Monday that injured 54 and the ambush killing Sunday of Jewish militant Binyamin Kahane and his wife, Talia — Barak announced he had broken off any further peace talks to concentrate instead on “reducing the terror.”
“There is no real way to carry out contacts and negotiations with the Palestinians under these conditions,” he said on Israel television.
And on Army Radio Barak said it was clear from the spate of recent attacks that the “Palestinians and Palestinian Authority are backing actions against us, and therefore in the coming week we will focus first on determined action against terror and violence, with the goal of reducing it as much as possible.”
As part of that effort, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh confirmed Wednesday that senior members of the Palestinian Authority would not be immune from being targeted by Israeli hit squads that have been sent to kill Palestinians who have orchestrated attacks on Israelis. Such operations, said Sneh, were “effective, precise and fair” and would be “mounted only if they serve our interests.”
The Israeli Defense Forces admitted Dec. 21 that it had such a “shoot to kill” policy. The latest Palestinian slain in such an attack was Thabet Thabet, an official of Arafat’s Fatah movement and the most senior Palestinian civilian official targeted. He was gunned down in the West Bank by Israeli troops Sunday.
Avital said such attacks “would not happen under normal circumstances, but when there is a state of war and people are carrying out terrorist attacks, you have to go after the terrorists. People in the country have been going around for weeks with the slogan, ‘Let Zahal [the IDF] win the war.’ You cannot deal with collective punishment all of the time, even though now there is a closure [of the territories] that has made life very difficult for the Palestinians because they can’t work in Israel nor get a lot of supplies.”
Arafat pledged to Clinton that he would concentrate on ending the violence and arresting those who did not heed his directive. But Shoval was skeptical of such a promise, noting that Arafat had failed to honor a similar pledge he made to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres several weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon reportedly plans to ask Peres of the Labor Party to serve as his foreign minister should he be elected. The move is seen as part of Sharon’s plan to create a national unity government. In addition, Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio that he would not serve as a cabinet member if invited to do so by Sharon.