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News Analysis: 2 Sides Struck Deal on Their Own, but Some Say U.S. Played a Key Role

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that Israel and the Arabs were incapable of making major advances toward peace without considerable assistance and pressure from the United States.

But Israeli and Palestinian negotiators seem to have defied that logic by conducting secret negotiations in Norway that led to a historic preliminary agreement on limited Palestinian self-rule in the administered territories.

Yet analysts here say this week’s break-through would not have been possible without prodding from the United States. They say that both the Bush and Clinton administrations deserve credit for fostering the climate that led to the accord, even though they may not have been directly involved in the negotiations that produced it.

On the surface, though, it appears that Israeli diplomats and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization did an end run around the official negotiating format for the peace process that the United States has cosponsored since the fall of 1991.

They bypassed the deadlocked bilateral talks taking place in Washington to hammer out a deal that would establish a Palestinian self-rule arrangement first in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho.

The agreement is “unprecedented in terms of Arabs and Israelis working without the Americans,” said Daniel Pipes of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

He said that observers to the talks had always assumed that once the “hard work began, it would be with the Americans. But the hard work is done,” he said.

But other analysts say the two sides would never have gotten this close to inking an accord without the active involvement of the United States.

Progress would not have been made without the United States “winning the Cold War, winning the Gulf War and establishing the Madrid frame-work” for the peace talks, said Richard Haass, a top Middle East adviser in the Bush administration who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

WAS U.S. UPSET BY AGREEMENT?

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy also credited the United States, specifically the Clinton administration, for creating the groundwork for the agreement.

If the Clinton administration had not defused the uproar over Israel’s deportation of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon nine months ago and the crisis in southern Lebanon last month, while working in general to put the negotiations back on track, the parties “wouldn’t have reached the stage” they have, Satloff said.

In addition, the Clinton administration has repeatedly stressed the need for major progress in the peace talks before the end of 1993.

Analysts have credited the breakthrough’s timing to domestic Israeli and Palestinian concerns, including the increasing role in the region played by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement and financial pressures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Satloff discounted as “canards” reports that the parties bypassed the Americans, or that the Americans were upset about the agreement.

But Pipes said that he detected a “slightly sour tone” this week on the part of the Americans involved with the negotiations.

Most experts agree that the United States will play a crucial role in the upcoming weeks and months as the parties put the finishing touches on their agreement and attempt to implement it.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was instrumental in reaching the secret deal with the PLO, was careful to credit the United States for its role in bringing the parties to an agreement.

PERES PRAISES CHRISTOPHER ROLE

Appearing Tuesday night on public television’s “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour” Peres emphasized the role played by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

“Let’s not forget that even the agreement that we have arrived with the Palestinians is partly based upon the declaration of principles that was worked out by the United States, that even this back channel was known to the secretary of state, that he has encouraged every effort to go ahead, and we still need a real bridge-builder like the United States,” Peres said.

The Israelis have also jumped ahead of the United States in dealing directly with the PLO.

While the Israelis seem on the verge of mutual recognition with the PLO, the United States is still holding back, at least for the time being.

On Tuesday, Christopher said the United States had not changed its position regarding the PLO. But he did not rule out an eventual change in U.S. policy, observing that “this is a rapidly changing environment.”

Analysts said the talks here in Washington still have an important role to play, one that complements the ongoing back-channel contacts between the parties.

If and when Israel and the PLO mutually recognize one another, the back-channel contacts will become formal discussions here in Washington, the analysts said.

But Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who also appeared on the “MacNeil-Lehrer” broadcast, admitted that “the reality has superseded the negotiations in Washington.”

Ashrawi said that “the back-channel talks have really created a new reality and a new dynamic, which is much more effective and much more substantive, and leading to real progress.”

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