News Analysis: Arab-israeli Procedural Squabbles Go to Heart of Substantive Issues

The disputes over procedure that cropped up as the bilateral Middle East peace talks began this week were really the opening rounds in the discussion of the substantive issues between Israel and the Arabs.

“All this means something; there are principles involved,” said Robert Satloff, deputy executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

When Israel refused to show up for the talks on Dec. 4, it was sending Washington a message that the Arabs should not be led to expect that the United States can “deliver” the Israelis, even on procedural matters.

Jerusalem got its “point across to the Americans,” Satloff said. As the talks got under way this week, the United States has “so far showed admirable forbearance,” he said.

The United States also seemed to have taken a hands-off approach to the dispute that arose when the Palestinians refused this week to negotiate with Israel as part of a joint delegation with Jordan.

Here, too, the issue had more to do with substance than with procedure. By insisting that Israel recognize the Palestinians as a separate delegation, the Palestinians were trying to establish “through procedure their claim as a separate state,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the spokesman for the Israeli delegation, said Tuesday.

And by insisting on the joint delegation, the Israelis were pressing their claim that the Palestinians have to find their political identity within the context of Jordan.

What Israel is offering the Palestinians by self-rule are “civil rights,” not political rights, Netanyahu maintained.

‘EVERY TRICK IN THEIR BASKET’

But Judith Kipper, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute, thinks the United States has made a mistake by deciding to stay out of these disputes unless asked by the parties to intervene.

During the opening peace conference in Madrid, the United States should have determined where the bilateral talks would be held, Kipper said. She said Washington should also have established the principle that the United States could “come and go” into the talks as it desired.

Nevertheless, Kipper and other analysts see the procedural squabbles passing. “This is the Middle East,” she said, “everyone will use every trick in their basket to gain time and advantage.”

No one wants to scuttle the talks, Satloff pointed out. He was confident that Israel and the Palestinians would soon find a way around the procedural impasse.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have an interest in moving rapidly, Satloff said. The Palestinians see this as their chance to get at least self-rule.

Adam Garfinkle, coordinator of the political studies program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said the procedural maneuvering means “both sides are serious.” He said it was a “good sign,” since it meant that the Israelis and Palestinians believed the negotiations would continue.

Garfinkle said he expects the Palestinians and Israelis to get down to negotiations until the “talks come to a screeching halt” over the Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze.

He said the timing for this will likely coincide with the end in mid-January of the 120-day delay in congressional action on Israel’s request for U.S. guarantees covering $10 billion in loans sought for immigrant resettlement.

Congress agreed to the delay at the request of the Bush administration, which maintained that a debate over the issue in September would harm the peace talks.

Garfinkle said he expects the Bush administration “will weigh in on the side of the Palestinians and insist on a settlement freeze.”

“At that point, the Israeli government will fall” because of a withdrawal from the coalition of right-wing parties, he predicted.

But he said that during the three-month election period, Israel and the Palestinians might continue to talk in private and could even “see some progress.”

LEBANESE TALKS MOST PROMISING

Meanwhile, the best news in the opening days of the second round of negotiations, said Satloff, was that the Syrians and Lebanese went about their talks even though the Palestinians and Jordanians did not.

He said this demonstrates that all the negotiations do not have to proceed at the same pace.

The Lebanese talks seem to be most promising, since there are no major issues between the two countries. The only territorial dispute between them is over Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon, which Israel says it needs to safeguard its northern border areas.

But it is difficult to see Lebanon agreeing to anything with Israel that does not have Syria’s approval.

Satloff said that Israel would not make the same mistake it did in 1983, when it reached an agreement with Lebanon only to see it sabotaged by Syria. He said Israel will not agree to anything that does not address the Syrians.

Garfinkle said he was surprised that the Syrians have allowed Lebanon some “elbow room” and that the Lebanese do not have to check with Syria on every issue.

He said there is a chance that Syria will allow Lebanon to reach a separate agreement with Israel, since the Syrians would like to see the Israel Defense Force leave southern Lebanon.

But Garfinkle and Satloff saw little hope of an early agreement between Israel and Syria. Chances of a peace treaty are “close to impossible,” Garfinkle said.

But he said he was pleasantly surprised that a Syrian official had for the first time publicly said there could be peace with Israel.

He was referring to a statement made Tuesday by Syria’s chief negotiator, Muwaffak Allaf, who said: “We are offering peace for territory occupied by Israel.”

Satloff suggested that the Syrians have learned better public relations since Madrid, where their boorish, hard-line stance was widely criticized. “They are playing the game more professionally,” he said.

But Syria is still demanding a return of the entire Golan Heights, something that is opposed not only by Israel’s Likud government, but by the Labor Party opposition too, Garfinkle pointed out.

But Kipper said she believed that some progress could be made between Syria and Israel. She said that in Madrid, all sides “recognized each other” de facto and agreed to find a peaceful solution.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria will be very painful, Kipper said. But she said progress can be made if both Israel and Syria agree to take small confidence-building steps at first.

While no one is predicting how long the current talks will last, all believe the next round will move out of Washington. Garfinkle said he did not believe the talks would be held in the Middle East itself, as the Israelis want, but at nearby locations, such as Cyprus or Greece.

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