Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

An Israeli-Palestinian Agreement That Won't Bring Peace

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

An Israeli-Palestinian Agreement That Won't Bring Peace

Article excerpt

An Israeli-Palestinian Agreement That Won't Bring Peace

By Rachelle Marshall

On July 24, the day before still another much publicized deadline slipped by with no agreement signed between Israel and the PLO, the New York Times carried a fourcolumn headline that read: "Israeli-PLO Talks Grind on Despite Deadlines." A reader might ask, "So what else is new?"

In letting deadlines come and go, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is using a negotiating tactic that has worked again and again for Israeli leaders over the past 46 years: agree to enter peace talks, stubbornly resist making concessions, and while the talks drag on and deadlines come and go, establish facts on the grounds until there is little left to negotiate.

The formula worked in 1949, when Israeli delegates went to Lausanne to discuss with Arab leaders the return of land Israel had seized beyond the territory granted by the U.N. partition plan, and the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had fled or been forced from their homes by Israeli forces. Despite his promise to negotiate, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion refused to budge on either issue. Meanwhile the Israeli army tightened its hold on the additional territory it had captured. After a few months the Lausanne talks ended in failure, with Israel ever afterwards maintaining that it was the Arabs who had refused to make peace.

In 1978 Menachem Begin, under pressure from President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, agreed to enter negotiations leading to Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. But before negotiations could take place, Begin announced that he would immediately increase the number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The news came as a blow to Carter, who later declared that Begin had promised him a moratorium on settlements until an agreement was reached on the future of the occupied territories. In any event, because Begin's notion of autonomy consisted of letting the Palestinians collect their own garbage while Israel seized more and more of their land, the negotiations predictably went nowhere. The rapid expansion of Jewish settlements begun in 1978 eventually resulted in Israel's takeover of more than two-thirds of the arable land in the West Bank.

The latest Israeli-Palestinian talks have followed a similar pattern. After nearly two years, they now resemble the final hours of a 1930s dance marathon, with the exhausted contestants going through the motions only to avoid having to come away empty-handed. For the Palestinians, as the current marathon drags on from Cairo to Geneva to the Dead Sea and back, the chance of coming away with a prize steadily diminishes.

When the talks began in early 1994 there was reason to hope that an end to the Israeli occupation was in sight. Israel promised to evacuate the center of Jericho and part of Gaza, and in May of that year agreed to release at least half of the 9,000 Palestinians then in prison. The Israeli army was scheduled to begin withdrawing from Palestinian towns and villages the following July, so that elections could be held in the fall of 1994. The elections would make possible the extension of Palestinian rule throughout the occupied territories.

But neither dates nor promises are sacred to Rabin when he is dealing with Palestinians. (Only Israel's 1996 election day is a "holy day" to the prime minister, said one Israeli critic.) Israel finally allowed some 2,000 Palestinians to move from prison to detention centers in Jericho after they pledged to support the Oslo accords. But at least 6,000 remain behind bars, the number increasing with new arrests. Rabin recently offered to release an additional 600 to 1,000 prisoners, but only after the PLO signs a peace agreement acceptable to Israel. On June 17, prisoners taking part in a widespread hunger strike issued a statement calling Rabin's offer an attempt at "manipulation and blackmail." The protesters vowed that if the PLO negotiators sign an agreement with Israel and schedule a vote while thousands remain in jail, "we will call on our people everywhere to boycott the elections until all the prisoners are released. …

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