U.S. efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks entered the “end game” this week, but it remained to be seen whether this round would be any more conclusive than several other recent diplomatic end games. On Monday, the State Department indicated that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would resume direct talks, possibly as early as this week, but not at the highest levels.
But privately, administration officials were saying that there is almost no expectation the talks will prove successful. If no progress is forthcoming, they say, the administration will likely begin its long-threatened withdrawal from active mediation.
The flurry of activity came after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last week voiced strong frustration over the long impasse and warned — again — that Washington could not continue its mediation effort
Spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interpreted her remarks as support for their argument that the onus for the stalled talks lies with the Palestinians, and that only direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could lead to a breakthrough.
That prompted a stern rebuke from State Department spokesman James Rubin, who came closer than ever to officially blaming Israel for the breakdown.
Referring to a series of U.S. proposals that include a 13.1 percent Israeli West Bank redeployment, Rubin said “the ball is not in the Palestinian court as I’ve seen it suggested. The ball is in the court of the Israelis to try to work with the Palestinians and work with us to come to a second yes. We have a yes from the Palestinians, and we are looking to get ourselves in a position where the Israelis can say yes, as well.”
But the Netanyahu government seemed ready only to say “maybe.” According to officials in Washington, recent hints that Netanyahu was prepared to accept the American plan were offset by his demands that the Palestinians fulfill a long list of obligations first.
The mood at the State Department was decidedly downbeat. The new talks, which were expected to begin after Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat returns from China, were portrayed as a last-ditch effort with little chance of narrowing the gaps between the two sides.
Administration sources say that special envoy Dennis Ross is virtually the only member of the peace process team who still believes a deal is possible to end the stalemate.
This week, the administration seemed ready to begin withdrawing from active negotiation; the only question is how publicly they will do it, and whether or not they will assess blame for the failed talks.
“If the administration pulls out noisily, it could precipitate the Third Way to pull out and bring down the Netanyahu government,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a peace process supporter. “But if they pull out quietly, it will essentially give Bibi a free ride while Knesset is out of session.”
Auschwitz In Limbo
This was the week a consortium of Jewish groups and the Polish government were supposed to sign an agreement laying out procedures for the final disposition of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site.
Instead, leaders of the coalition, which includes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, the American Jewish Committee, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and the Ronald Lauder Foundation, were coping with a last-minute about-face by another member, the World Jewish Congress.
Critics, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, have insisted that the pending agreement will allow Christian religious symbols to remain and encourage commercial development that will deface the site. Rabbi Weiss has been particularly vehement in criticizing Miles Lerman, chair of the board that oversees the Museum and the lead negotiator.
“It’s not only a bad agreement, it’s a desecration of the 6 million,” Rabbi Weiss said this week. “[Lerman] is ready to sign an agreement that will allow the cross to remain forever. The Birkenau church, the only building remaining of Nazi headquarters, is a far greater desecration because Birkenau was the primary theater of death for the Jews.”
Rabbi Weiss also rejected the role of the Museum in the negotiations. “The mandate of the Museum is education and memory, not to negotiate and sign international agreements,” he said. “It’s not a legitimate function; I believe it is so serious there should be a congressional investigation about the misuse of federal funds.”
Lerman rejected those charges, calling Rabbi Weiss an “extremist.” He insisted that the agreement will actually protect the Jewish character of the site. He said he was negotiating for removal of the cross — but that the recent public controversy over the issue “lit a firestorm in Poland. It means that we are going to need more time to negotiate.”
Some 150 members of the Polish parliament, he said, have protested efforts to remove the cross. But Lerman’s forces suffered a setback when the World Jewish Congress decided not to support the agreement until the cross is removed; since the coalition operates by consensus, that effectively delayed the signing.
Ehud’s Assault On The Hill
Ehud Barak has made several trips to Washington since his ascension to the top post in the Labor party, but with an unusually low profile.
That has led to charges in Israel that he has ceded Capitol Hill to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose growing network of connections to Republican lawmakers and some key Democrats has boxed in the Clinton administration.
That could change on Aug. 3, when Barak, accompanied by a phalanx of Labor leaders with good Washington connections, mounts a major assault on Washington.
Barak, who will travel with Knesset members Yossi Beilin, Ori Orr and Ephraim Sneh, is planning an extensive round of meetings with key lawmakers.
Sneh, chair of the Knesset Comptroller Subcommittee on the IDF and Defense, generated headlines in Israel this week when he warned that Israel’s preparedness is slipping even as the danger of war increases.
They’ll also fan out to make the rounds of Mideast think tanks and meet with State Department and White House officials — although Barak is reportedly not seeking a White House audience.