In another surprise that has come to symbolize Middle East peace talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat met at midweek and announced another “breakthrough” — the restarting of talks that have been stalled for weeks. The move came after both Barak and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy had expressed doubts about achieving peace with the Palestinians and Syrians this year.
The American envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, announced that Arafat and Barak — after holding two separate meetings within 14 hours — had agreed to resume peace talks in Washington following the four-day Muslim Feast of Sacrifice that begins March 16.
Under a compromise brokered by the U.S. and Egypt, Israel has agreed to withdraw immediately from another 6.1 percent of the West Bank, offering the Palestinians the choice of land from a designated 10 percent area. An additional Israeli withdrawal would take place by June 30. In addition, a framework for a peace treaty would be sought by May and the Sept. 13 deadline for a final accord would remain. Among the issues to be resolved are the future of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.
The talks stalled over the Palestinian demand that the next interim Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank include part of Jerusalem. Israel wanted to delay all discussion of Jerusalem until the final-status talks.
Just hours before the summit, Arafat issued his strongest statement to date that he would declare a Palestinian state in September, with or without an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
“There is no turning back on our decision to declaring national independence … and I declare that the year 2000 is the year for the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” he said in a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council meeting in Ramallah.
Asked later the exact date of such declaration, Arafat told reporters: “We are discussing with friends in the world what is the best day for declaring our state.”
On Monday, Vice President Al Gore was asked what the U.S. would do if Arafat unilaterally declared a Palestinian state.
“President Clinton and I have actively and forcefully discouraged any unilateral steps by the parties that would harm the negotiating process,” he told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “This [declaration] would fall into that category, and we’d take whatever steps we could to discourage it.”
Asked if as president he would recognize a Palestinian state, Gore said he would “consult with the government of Israel to see what the most helpful response should be. … It would be very unwise for the Palestinians to take such a step and very unwise to assume that it would have a positive outcome for them.”
Barak’s summit with Arafat followed his bleak assessment of a peace treaty with Syria anytime soon. He reportedly told his cabinet Sunday that there was no date for the resumption of talks that broke off in January. And he said that unless talks are resumed in coming months, it would be difficult to reach an agreement this year.
He also described the situation in southern Lebanon, where Israel maintains a 9-mile wide self-imposed security belt, as fragile and ready to explode at any moment. Two days later, two South Lebanese Army soldiers were killed in the zone in separate attacks by Iran-backed Hezbollah forces. The deaths broke to 14 the number of SLA soldiers killed this year.
Israel has maintained a security force in Lebanon since 1982 and imposed the security ring in 1985. Hezbollah terrorists have attempted to dislodge Israeli troops over the years and in the last month they killed seven Israeli soldiers in the zone.
At the Sunday meeting, the cabinet voted to approve Barak’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops from that security zone by July, with or without a peace treaty with Syria. The cabinet said Israeli troops would redeploy along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon “and from there will secure the safety of the northern towns and villages.”
On Wednesday, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud warned that in the event of a unilateral withdrawal, Lebanon could not prevent “tens of thousands of armed refugees” hiding in Palestinian camps from attacking Israel’s northern communities.
Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, David Ivry, told reporters in New York Tuesday that he believed Syrian President Hafez Assad has some control over Hezbollah. He said that after the failure of the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in January, Assad sent a signal to Hezbollah that it was now okay to step up attacks on Israeli forces “for political leverage.”