JERUSALEM (Dec. 21)
As Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization inched their way this week toward an agreement for implementing the self-rule accord, the two sides seemed stalemated.
In fact,-at-the beginning of the week, as teams of high-level officials from Jerusalem and Tunis made their way to Oslo, Israel and the PLO seemed agreed on one point only: to fail to reach agreement on implementation would be an unmitigated disaster.
Put another way, the respective leaders of the Jewish state and the PLO would be doomed to political extinction if the accord they signed in Washington in September was not implemented soon.
But beyond this common realization, the gaps between the negotiating teams remained wide and seemingly unbridgeable.
Three key issues divided the two sides: control of the borders between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and between the West Bank town of Jericho and Jordan; the size of the Jericho district that will fall under Palestinian administration; and the size of Israeli security forces that will remain to protect settlers in Gaza and Jericho.
POTENTIAL INVITATION TO TERRORISTS
For Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, all three issues go to the heart of Israel’s security concerns.
An unpoliced border at the Jordan River or the Sinai could invite terrorist groups to cross not only into the autonomous Palestinian areas but on into Israel itself.
“They could travel straight to Tel Aviv,” Rabin said this week. “There would be nothing to stop them.”
This is especially the case since both Israel and the PLO are planning to maintain closely linked economies during the five-year interim period.
For Arafat, on the other hand, the borders and the crossing points are symbols of Palestinian national pride.
These are the places where flags are flown, passports stamped and visas issued — all of which reflect the trappings of incipient Palestinian sovereignty.
Arafat, of course, sees the five-year interim period called for in the accord as a corridor to eventual Palestinian independence and statehood.
The border issue, along with the size of the Jericho district, had been the subject of ambiguous wording in the declaration of principles that formed the basis of the accord.
The declaration speaks of Israel’s control of “external security,” but it also invokes the notion of “mutual cooperation.”
Because of the ambiguity, both sides are claiming a right to control the borders. And because of the ambiguity, they now have the painstaking task of reaching an agreement on unambiguous specifics.
As the talks moved from Oslo to Paris at midweek, Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres firmly insisted there would be no wavering on the border-control issue.
They indicated, however, that there was flexibility in the Israeli positions and even managed an optimistic assessment of the negotiations.
As the agonizing, almost bitter rounds of semi-secret negotiations proceeded this week in wintry European capitals, seasoned observers in the Middle East were already fixing their gaze on the next focus of diplomatic activity — the meeting between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad scheduled for mid-January.
Preparations have already begun in Damascus and Washington for the historic Assad-Clinton meeting, which is likely to take place in Geneva.
But the prospect of that meeting does not make all Israelis particularly happy.
During his visit to Washington last month, Rabin assured Clinton that Israel would be ready to negotiate in earnest with Syria once Damascus indicated it was willing to pursue a “full peace” with Israel, including open borders, free trade and full diplomatic exchanges.
But most observers here think Rabin — and indeed the rest of his Cabinet — would prefer a longer breathing space, during which they could implement the Palestinian accord before launching into the painful question of withdrawing from the Golan Heights.
The perception in Jerusalem is that Clinton would not have agreed to the meeting with Assad unless he had received fairly solid assurances that the Syrian president will, in fact, use the occasion to make a statement regarding the “full peace” with Israel.
If that does happen — and if Israel and the PLO have by then successfully concluded their negotiations and embarked on implementation of the accord — the epicenter of Middle East peacemaking will then dramatically shift to the Israeli-Syrian track.