Although it sometimes seems hard to believe, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is still struggling forward, intent on meeting a July 1 deadline for an agreement on the next phase of Palestinian autonomy.
Despite even the latest obstacles, negotiations continued as Israel’s 47th Independence Day celebrations converged Thursday with the one-year anniversary of the Cairo Accord, which set the start of Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave.
Despite the latest dispute over Israeli plans to confiscate Arab land in eastern Jerusalem, despite the recurrent suicide-bomb attacks by fanatical Palestinian radicals, despite rocky relations between the leaders of the two sides and despite their various political weaknesses, Israeli sources advise against a too-pessimistic assessment of the setbacks, which to outside observes, seem likely to bury the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
With a little bit of good luck, for a change, these sources say, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority will yet achieve agreement on the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
Negotiators are pressing ahead on the details for the next phase, which includes the redeployment of Israel Defense Force troops from many, though not all, of the main Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and the holding of Palestinian elections, which have been deferred repeatedly since last fall.
Largely because of the problems with the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s celebration of the Jewish state’s 47th anniversary seemed almost deliberately designed to block out the deal with the Palestinians.
Instead, the focus was placed squarely on a peace front for more popular with the Israeli public — the historic peace treaty signed last October with Jordan.
In an effort to play up this part of the peace process, Rabin, his wife, Leah, and their children and grandchildren played starring roles in an epic production for Israel Television in which they spent Monday touring Jordan.
The Rabin family visited Petra, the Nabatean “red city in the desert” that has attracted countless Israeli tourists since the treaty signing.
The Rabins later lunched with King Hussein and his extended family, and the day ended with a joint interview by the two leaders on the peace process.
Rabin said during the interview that the peace with Jordan was the “cornerstone” of an comprehensive peace in the region.
But he knows, as did his host, Hussein, that that cornerstone stands on another cornerstone — the Israel-Palestinian self-rule accord.
Without the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake in September 1993 on the White House lawn King Hussein, as he has often stated himself, would not have made his formal and public peace with the Jewish state.
With much less fanfare, but perhaps no less significance, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reported this week that they have agreed that a voters’ register will be drawn up throughout the West Bank and Gaza as soon as the next-phase agreement is reached.
Thus it appears that tangible preparations for the Palestinian elections will get under way in the territories even before the IDF begins its redeployment.
This will enable the elections themselves to take place within a short time after the redeployment is completed.
Both sides believe that the elections will be a watershed, denoting a point-of- no-return on the road to final peace.
Some Israeli ministers, such as Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc, now say outright that the so-called “permanent status” talks between Israel and the Palestinians will lead to Palestinian statehood.
Indeed, Sarid suggested recently that the extension of autonomy throughout the West Bank and the holding of elections there would mark, de facto, the beginning of a Palestinian sovereign state.
Under the terms of the self-rule accord, Israel and the Palestinians are to start negotiating the permanent status of their relationship no later than May 1996.
Rabin, for his part, pleased his Cabinet doves by announcing last week that three large IDF training camps located in the West Bank will be redeployed to within Israel.
Officials explained that these facilities would later be used to house the operational IDF troops that would be withdrawn from the major Palestinian cities when the negotiations reach a successful conclusion.
Among Jewish settlers, there have been angry pledges to take over any camp or position relinquished by the IDF. And there is little doubt that once embarked upon, the redeployment will encounter traumatic scenes of protest and violent dissent.
In the Rabin government’s present perilous state, domestic political weakness could yet confound Rabin’s best laid plans and topple him and his government.
On the Palestinian side, too, internal strife is a realistic threat to the stability of Arafat’s rule.
Talks between the Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad fundamentalist movements in Gaza are reportedly stalemated, and some Israeli observers predict the imminent outbreak of armed conflict between the pro-peace forces and the rejectionists.
But the gravest threat to the prospects of completing the next phase is the threat of further terror attacks on Israelis.
Each such attack sends the Rabin government’s popularity plummeting. A subsequent period of relative quiet brings it bouncing back — but never quite to the previous level. In recent months, Rabin has consistently trailed Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the opinion polls.
This week, a group of leading Israeli writers, including Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, addressed a public manifesto to Arafat. The manifesto warned him bluntly that if there is more terror, there would be no peace process.
As Israel prepared to celebrate Independence Day, the Palestinians remained hemmed into their territories by a military closure of the ares.
The closure results in palpable economic hardship to the Palestinians, who are unable to work as day laborers inside Israel until the closure is lifted. This in turn exacerbates social unrest, leading to further political radicalization among Arafat’s fundamentalist opposition.
Adding to Palestinian resentments, and further alienating the two sides, was the news this week that the Israeli government approved the confiscation of some 120 acres of prime land in eastern Jerusalem, much of it Arab-owned, mainly for Jewish residential building.
The news elicited a barrage of protests: Arafat sought redress from the U.N. Security Council; the Arab League was scheduled to convene Saturday for an emergency session; and a number of countries, including Britain, France, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, all condemned the land confiscations.
In Washington, Nicholas Burns, a State Department spokesman, said, “It’s difficult to see how this type of action, this land confiscation, can be helpful at this time in the negotiations.”
In addition, Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian Authority’s top official in Jerusalem, accused Israel of wantonly flouting the self-rule accord, which specifically left Jerusalem to be dealt with in the permanent status talks.
Husseini and other Palestinian leaders warned that the entire peace process was in jeopardy.
Despite these ominous warnings, diehard optimists in Israel maintain that Rabin’s insistence on proceeding with the land appropriations at this time might be a hopeful sign.
They argue that his decision signals his determination to proceed with the controversial decisions as well as the concessions that are necessary to bring the crucial next phase of the peace process to fruition.