Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Affairs of State: Ross Debriefing after Hebron Accord Casts Doubt on Final Withdrawals

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Affairs of State: Ross Debriefing after Hebron Accord Casts Doubt on Final Withdrawals

Article excerpt

Affairs of State: Ross Debriefing After Hebron Accord Casts Doubt on Final Withdrawals

The Department of State's designated hitter to handle Tel Aviv, Ambassador Dennis Ross, returned in mid-January from a triumphant three-week intervention in the collapsed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with one clear resolve: "The U.S. will always be there for the parties but to the extent they can [negotiate] solutions themselves, we will now step back, I hope." He expressed confidence that the process will continue and "it will continue to sustain itself."

But the U.S. action in coming out clearly supporting Israel's right to leave the Palestinians with only a small part of the West Bank marred the future beyond Hebron for the peace process. The intervention by State came in the middle of a frantic 12-hour Israeli cabinet meeting that ended in the resignation of Science Minister Ze'ev "Benny" Begin, the hard-line ideologue son of former Prime Minister Menachim Begin, and only an 11-7 vote of support for the retreat from four-fifths of Hebron.

"Specified Military Locations"

As the Israeli cabinet was meeting to discuss the Hebron agreement, a State Department spokesman was quoted on Israeli television as having said that Israel would be "negotiating" the actual extent of the three subsequent scheduled withdrawals during the next 18 months. Netanyahu was informed and immediately recessed the shouting match that was going on over this very point to call Washington: Israel claimed that the Oslo II agreement meant that Israel would decide the extent of the "specified military locations" and the borders to which its forces would withdraw before finishing final status talks.

The State Department immediately folded and adopted the Israeli interpretation of a very ambiguous Article XI, which states that "The specified military locations referred to in Article X, paragraph 2 above, will be determined in the further redeployment phases within the specified time frame ending not later than 18 months from the date of the inauguration of the (Palestine) Council, and will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations."

Ambiguous? Yes, but the Department of State was shocked into announcing that it supported the right of "Israel alone" to decide how far to withdraw in the next 19 months. And within days, Netanyahu was assuring Jewish settlers that Israel would have to withdraw only from 10 percent of the West Bank, in disconnected areas around the cities. Presumably, he will use the reference to "specified military locations" to hold onto the other 90 percent.

The Department may live to regret its unilateral interpretation of the agreement, made under pressure and without consulting Yasser Arafat, to leave the Israelis in charge of vast stretches of Palestinian territory which the Palestine Authority has every reason to think it is regaining after 30 years. The Department acted to support Netanyahu in order to gain Israeli cabinet approval of the agreement, its sidebar note of understanding, and Christopher's letters of assurance to each party. Already the chief Palestinian negotiator, Sa'eb Erakat, has made it plain that the Palestinians cannot accept this interpretation. Nor will peace come if the autonomy-plus that Netanyahu talks about for the Palestinians leaves them with only a small fraction of the West Bank.

Borders, Further Re-Deployment Not "Synonymous"

"Borders and further re-deployment are not necessarily synonymous," Ambassador Ross emphasized twice in his briefings to journalists in mid-January. "But we have sought to focus much more on the process rather than on any issues," he added. The Washington Report asked him if Christopher's secret letters of assurance to the two parties included any assurances or warnings regarding settlement building. (The Israelis published their letter but the Palestinians did not publish theirs.) "No, they do not, but we have certainly addressed this and the question of Hamas to the parties," Ross replied. …

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