Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Peace Talks Resume, Both Barak and Arafat Face Internal Opposition

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

As Peace Talks Resume, Both Barak and Arafat Face Internal Opposition

Article excerpt

As Peace Talks Resume, Both Barak and Arafat Face Internal Opposition

Operating with the secrecy of cat burglars, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators began meeting in Washington on March 21 to discuss terms of a final peace settlement. President Bill Clinton held a March 26 meeting with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad in an attempt to jump-start talks between Syria and Israel that were frozen in January. With the most crucial issues still to be decided, no one was raising hopes that either set of meetings would result in an agreement, especially since the negotiating process so far has been chiefly one of detours and blowouts. So there was no excuse for surprise when the Clinton-Assad talk adjourned with no result after three hours, and the Israeli-Palestinian talks adjourned after a week, with no fixed date for resumption.

President Yasser Arafat suspended negotiations with Israel in early February after Prime Minister Ehud Barak refused to include neighborhoods close to East Jerusalem in a second troop withdrawal. The Israeli leader persuaded the Palestinians to come back to the table by offering as "goodwill initiatives" to release additional Palestinian prisoners, pay back millions of dollars in taxes owed by Israel to the Palestinian Authority, and turn over the town of Anata near Jerusalem. When Barak's right-wing coalition members protested that the Palestinians would use Anata as a beachhead to take over Jerusalem, Barak reversed himself, and offered instead areas near Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. Arafat accepted the deal, and on March 21 Israel withdrew from 6.1 percent more of the West Bank.

The terms of a third withdrawal, now scheduled for the end of June, must still be negotiated, although it was supposed to have been completed last year. Barak is following the formula devised by his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, according to which Israel signs an agreement, insists on another round of negotiations before complying with it, then whittles down the original agreement -- meanwhile taking over more and more Palestinian land. The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom recently described the process in a newspaper ad entitled "Why Don't They Trust Us?" The ad explained, "For every undertaking the Palestinians have had to pay three times: when it was signed, when the implementation was agreed upon, and when it was implemented -- if indeed it was." Not surprisingly, recent polls show that 43 percent of Palestinians have lost faith in what increasingly resembles a bait-and-switch operation.

In recent weeks moderate Arab leaders have shown almost unprecedented vigor in calling Israel to account. At a meeting in Beirut on March 12 the 22-member Arab League issued a stinging condemnation of Israel's "continuing aggression" against Lebanon, reasserted the Arab nations' support for Hezbollah resistance forces, and called for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees. The meeting of the Arab foreign ministers followed a series of visits to Beirut by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah of Kuwait, and Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia. In addition to criticizing Israel, the Arab dignitaries called for resumption of the peace process, with Prince Abdullah urging Israel "to steer away from the language of guns."

In a defiant response to the Arab ministers, Israel ended a three-week lull in the fighting on March 13 with two days of bombing and artillery attacks across Lebanon, hitting Palestinian targets close to the Syrian border and killing a Lebanese schoolboy. The Arab League's statement was originally prompted by Israel's bombing of Lebanon's power stations on Feb. 8 and an inflammatory warning by Foreign Minister David Levy that if Hezbollah retaliated, "Lebanon's soil will burn...one thing turns on the other, blood for blood, a life for a life, a child for a child."

The Arab nations had several reasons to fear that the peace process was at a dead end. …

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