News Analysis: All Things Considered, Autonomy Creeps Along ‘surprisingly’

One year after Israel signed the historic Declaration of Principles with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a key engineer of the accord says things are going “surprisingly well” between the two erstwhile foes.

Uri Savir, director-general of the Foreign Ministry and the man who headed Israel’s team during the crucial closing phase of the secret talks with the PLO last year in Oslo, said this week that the PLO leadership’s transfer from its former headquarters in Tunis to the Gaza Strip in July had gone more smoothly than had been expected.

The gradual unfolding of the phased autonomy program, he said, was proceeding satisfactorily.

Meanwhile, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat spoke this week of holding elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza in November — an ambitiously tight timeframe that presumes intensive negotiations between the two sides in the weeks and months ahead.

The Declaration of Principles, signed Sept. 13, 1993, on the South Lawn of the White House, provided for the establishment of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, which took place in May. This move was to be followed by the transfer of authority over education, health and other key civilian areas from Israeli hands to the Palestinians.

This so-called “early empowerment,” which has been signed but not fully implemented, was, in turn, to be followed by an Israeli troop re- deployment out of city centers in the West Bank on the eve of Palestinian elections. The final phase, according to the declaration, would grant Palestinian self-rule throughout the West Bank.

Negotiations on the final status of the territories are to begin no later than the end of the second year after the initial Gaza-Jericho phase went into effect — that is, by the summer of 1996. The final status talks are to deal with major obstacles, such as the fate of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Savir’s assessment, perhaps understandably, accentuates the positive, while the right-wing opposition in Israel stresses the negative.

GETTING USED TO ARAFAT AS A NEIGHBOR

Similarly, statistics published this week by settlers groups indicate an upsurge in terrorism against Israelis since Sept. 13, 1993. Figures published by the Israel Defense Force show a decline.

But whatever one’s standpoint, it can hardly be denied that Arafat’s permanent presence in Gaza, more than any other single factor, has contributed to the de-demonization — if not yet full normalization — of the still-complex relationship between the two peoples.

A year ago, even after the significance of the breakthrough to peace had begun to be realized, most Israelis simply could not conceive of Arafat, their archenemy, actually taking up peaceable residence alongside them.

Now that, too, is taken almost for granted.

Israelis by and large still do not like the man; they do not trust him. Yet they are getting used to him as a neighbor, warts and all — and that, too, is a form of peacemaking.

The neighborly relations between the teeming Gaza Strip and Israel proper have been soured all too often over recent months by instances of bloody, sometimes lethal violence.

The fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad gangs are still out and about in the strip. On occasion, terrorists manage to slip across the border and wreak their murderous havoc on civilian targets inside Israel.

The performance of the Palestinian police force and fledgling security service still leaves much to be desired. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself, at moments of grief and impotent frustration, has openly questioned not only the Palestinian force’s capabilities, but the sincerity of its efforts to apprehend terrorists.

Rabin warns that security — especially the security of Jewish settlers living in Gaza and in the West Bank — will continue to be the most important criterion by which Israeli public opinion will judge the success of the peace process.

Clearly there is a built-in paradox here: The settlers, like the terrorists, are the very group that least wishes to see the process succeed.

In a strange way, therefore, Israel and the PLO have together given the opponents of peace within their societies, separately and collectively, a key say in whether this peace will ultimately evolve into a permanent solution of the conflict.

That paradox flowed originally out of Rabin’s determination not to touch a single settlement as long as he was not totally convinced that the experiment would work.

This is the logic of the interim period of self-government, which leaves all options open for the permanent status negotiations down the road.

Rabin himself, according to his close aides, has failed during this past year to overcome or even moderate a deep-seated antipathy toward Arafat.

The only chemistry between them is explosive — as demonstrated at their meeting last month at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, when verbal sparks flew.

But these same aides are at pains to stress that Rabin, today as a year ago, recognizes Arafat’s unique role as the only man on the Palestinian national movement capable of making decisions — and making them stick.

Ultimately, the Israeli prime minister believes, Arafat’s capabilities will enable the veteran PLO chairman to reach a working accord with the World Bank and individual donor governments that have pledged generous sums of cash to help the Palestinian self-rule get under way.

PERES, ARAFAT MEET IN OSLO

Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met in Oslo on Tuesday to try to reconcile differences that arose at a meeting of donor countries with Palestinians and Israelis in Paris over the weekend.

As happened so often during the year, the sensitive matter of Jerusalem — ostensibly deferred until the permanent status talks — insinuated itself onto the agenda and threatened to disrupt the session.

Peres is hardly a personal fan of Arafat’s, though his role over this year has often been to soothe tempers and sidestep pitfalls in the Israeli-PLO relationship.

In the final analysis, though, it is Rabin –just as it was Rabin a year ago — who alone commands the confidence of the majority of the nation as he moves boldly forward toward far-reaching concessions on all fronts in return for peace.

If he wins the Nobel Prize for Peace — final deliberations are taking place in Oslo at this time — it will be as much for leading his country into a brave but unknown future as for his leadership in the actual negotiation with the erstwhile enemy.

With the “Syrian track” suddenly gaining momentum as the anniversary of the Israel-PLO accord rolled around, some Israeli commentators have returned to the much-favored pastime of hypothesizing about what might have been.

They cite reports during 1993 that Rabin himself would have preferred a land-for-peace deal with Syria as his first breakthrough, with the Jordanians to follow and the Palestinians to bring up a weak and divided rear.

The historical reality, however, is that Syrian President Hafez Assad tarried — indeed he is still tarrying, failing to appreciate Rabin’s pressing need to present his public with the new and peaceful horizons he had promised in his election campaign. Arafat, for his part, for once in his life grabbed at the right opportunity at the right moment.

A year ago, there were many — Israelis, Arabs and third-party observers — who preferred to maintain their skepticism. Today it is hard to find anyone in political life who seriously believes the clock can ever be turned back.

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