On September 13, 1999, Israel and the Palestinian Authority held a ceremonial opening of the final status talks ordained six years earlier by Oslo I. In fact, this was the third ceremonial opening of such talks: once in 1995, then again in 1996, corresponding loosely to Oslo’s original stipulation that the negotiations must begin no later than three years into the five-year life of the transitional agreement. At this point, of course, the cascades of ones, threes, fives, sixes, the ceremonies, negotiations and non- negotiations, must leave the observer confused if not flustered.
This confusion deepens when one examines the “new” agreement reached with such fanfare by Israeli Prime Minister Barak and PA Chairman Arafat under the (for once) benevolent gaze of U.S. Secretary of State Albright on September 4, 1999. Much of it is a mere restatement of the incomplete Wye River Memorandum (October 23, 1998), which itself was a restatement of unfulfilled promises made earlier by the parties to each other. Yet the parties insisted on calling “Wye 2” with the new name of the Sharm el-Sheikh Accord, not only to pay honor to Egypt, host of the negotiations, but to signal something new.
Upon analysis, the transaction does indeed appear to hold several new things: (1) a revised Israeli negotiating strategy, (2) a partial Palestinian reengagement, but with an invocation of American assistance, (3) and a much less active U.S. role— for the moment. Yet the apparent determination by Israel and the PA to go “back to the future” of their relationship, that is, to go beyond Oslo in search of a final status agreement, contains a potential paradox, for the prolongation of the transition arrangements may well become essential to the final deal.
1. The Israeli Strategy
After forming a broad-based government in mid-June (see Peacefacts, July 1999) the new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak began a whirlwind tour of foreign capitals on behalf of revived negotiations with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. For those with short memories, Barak’s insistence on going to Washington first and meeting with nearly everyone except Arafat, appeared to duplicate Netanyahu’s initial actions in the summer of 1996. Arafat thought so, and he was extremely suspicious of the Israeli approach especially when he found out that Barak wanted to revise the stalled Wye River arrangement, delaying the last phase of withdrawals until the achievement of a final status agreement.
Barak seemed to have a two-fold purpose. The first was to return the main negotiations to an Israeli-Palestinian forum, which meant persuading Clinton that the intense American involvement of the late Netanyahu period should cease. He found the White House overjoyed by his election and eager to fall in with this part of the plan which must also have commended itself to Vice President Gore and potential N.Y. Senator Hillary Clinton. And there could not be much objection to the rest of it once Barak made clear that he would only carry out a revised Wye with PA consent. Moreover, Barak’s proposed timetable ran according to a political clock, promising that something, either a general final status declaration of principles or a miraculous final status agreement itself, would be achieved by the end of the Clinton term.
These proposals highlighted an interesting switch in the Israeli and Palestinian positions. Twenty years earlier at Camp David when autonomy was first proposed by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Arabs had feared that the so-called transition would never end because Israel would never seriously begin a final status process that created a Palestinian state. Later Secretary of State Shultz had invented the so-called “interlock” assuring the Palestinians that serious talks would begin with U.S. help no later than year three of the five-year autonomy. This was duly incorporated into Oslo in 1993.
Two years later, however, Israel agreed at Oslo II to further withdrawals that promised increased Palestinian control of territory before final status, and this reversed the pattern. Israel was conceding its biggest bargaining chip— territory— before tackling the biggest issues such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem, while the Palestinians were gaining ground before making their biggest concessions. Rabin had carefully refused to specify the size of the withdrawals to give him a varying length of carrot for Arafat, but Netanyahu— and Barak — concluded that once the Palestinian Authority was solidly established, Israel’s interest lay in hastening into final status talks rather than quibbling over increments. This approach also recognized (as had Rabin) that Palestinian terrorism, and the PA’s reluctance to combat it fully, would threaten Israeli public support for the entire process.
Barak therefore argued with Arafat that the last stage of Wye withdrawal — the 3% that would isolate numerous small Israeli settlements — should be incorporated in a final status agreement. The Palestinian and Israeli interest, so Barak claimed, would be well served if the potential for violence represented by this situation could be put off.
2. The New Old Deal
In the end, although convinced of Barak’s sincerity, Arafat would not agree. He did concede a revised timetable, however, that in effect put off the last stage for early in the year 2000. This was to occur on January 20; then on February 15, 2000 the two sides were to reach a “framework” agreement on final status. Other revisions reflected Barak’s military map. The Israelis ditched the painfully negotiated “nature preserve” in the Judean Desert, and the acreage will now be given to the Palestinians in other areas, thereby keeping the military security zone intact as wished by the generals. Finally, there was further tinkering on unfinished business: the unfulfilled part of the 1997 Hebron deal; the port at Gaza and safe passage zone between the PA-West Bank and PA-Gaza.
Arafat, however, laid down two markers of interest. First, he concocted a last-minute crisis over Palestinian prisoner releases so that he could give Secretary of State Albright a concession that he would not give Barak. Second, he obtained from her a side letter assuring him that the revised deal would be carried out even if the framework on final status was not agreed at the date stipulated. He also gained from the U.S. (and the European Union) a pledge to respect the Palestinian right of self-determination, a code word for statehood. While both sides set a date of September 15, 2000 for the end of final status talks, thereby extending the transition arrangements, Arafat was clearly brandishing his now familiar threat of a unilateral declaration of independence.
3. The U.S. Role
These revisions amounted to a ratification of the strategy of both sides. Barak had tweaked the Wye maps to reflect his military priorities; he had established enough rapport with Arafat to return the negotiations to their pre- Netanyahu rhythm; and he had seemingly synchronized the final status and interim maps. But Arafat was under no compulsion to negotiate seriously until after the withdrawals were complete and he was fully prepared to play the American card if need be. For the moment, this left the Americans in the happy position of the Rabin years, applauding deals largely reached by the parties themselves without sacrificing much of the President’s time or his precious political capital.
This success, modest in its face, nonetheless was accompanied by signs of serious intent and not only on the Israeli side. The usual spate of terrorist incidents, the biggest of which was thwarted because the bombs blew up the bombers (“a work accident”) led to a serious crackdown on Hamas. This time, the new Jordanian government participated; King Abdullah II, breaking with his father’s policies, decided to expel the organization. Jordan also indicated its readiness to relinquish its claim to special preference on Jerusalem. In doing do, the Jordanian monarch abandoned leverage against Arafat.
While Washington could take some satisfaction from these events, the anticipated Syrian breakthrough was denied Mrs. Albright who conducted an extraordinary twenty-hour workday on January 4 that took her from Jerusalem to Damascus to Beirut to Sharm el-Sheikh (for the Israeli-Palestinian ceremony) and finally back to Jerusalem at 2:00 a.m. This had its physical dangers, especially in Beirut where she was the first Secretary of State to visit the international airport since 1983. It also had its diplomatic dangers. Assad, a man notoriously disdainful of Arafat, was not likely to get into line behind him nor to give even the appearance that a Syrian-Israeli transaction would “follow” an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The Syrians therefore remained adamant on their well-worn insistence that Barak agree to a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967 lines. In this, Assad wanted more from Israel than either Sadat got (the international border rather than Egypt’s pre- war control over Gaza) or Arafat was likely to get. Maybe Arafat could offer concessions to Albright, but for Assad the proper forum is Clinton himself, a position he shares with Barak.
In the end, the summer of 1999 bore a dramatic contrast with the summer of 1996. Barak, whose map is not materially different from Netanyahu’s or for that matter Sharon’s, has engaged Arafat without enduring a Jerusalem tunnel incident. The two leaders seem to have convinced each other that each wants a deal, establishing a modicum of necessary political trust. They are “back to the future” looking at least at a final status negotiation, but where both sides are worlds apart. And this promises yet another dramatic reversal. For if Arafat was in no hurry to get to a final status negotiation where he must accept big compromises without gaining big territory, Barak is in no hurry to end “transitional” arrangements if Arafat cannot make those compromises.