JERUSALEM (Nov. 23)
There is one person keeping the Wye agreement from falling apart — President Clinton.
As implementation of the land-for-security agreement gets off to a belated start, the U.S. president’s pivotal role in the process is growing increasingly clear.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat are no longer under the pressure of Clinton’s immediate presence as they were during the intense days and nights of negotiations in Maryland that led up to the accord.
But just the same, the two labor under the knowledge that Clinton is soon to arrive in the region for a visit of profound significance. By scheduling the visit at a key point in the implementation process, the president ensconced himself as the mediator and guarantor of the process.
When the accord was signed Oct. 23 at the White House, many commentators focused on the active role assigned in the agreement to the CIA. They felt that the usually secretive spy service was being given a highly public role and would become the arbiter of security disputes that were bound to arise once the redeployment got under way.
While the CIA role is indeed significant, Clinton’s ongoing role in the process is shaping up as the most significant American contribution to the accord’s implementation.
In the wake of the further Israeli redeployment last Friday — the first of three called for under the accord — the two sides were soon trading their usual charges and countercharges.
In the redeployment, Israel transferred 2 percent of the West Bank, or some 44 square miles, from sole Israeli control to joint control with the Palestinian Authority. Israel also handed over 7.1 percent of land in the region to sole Palestinian control.
Most of the redeployment was carried out near the West Bank town of Jenin. The second redeployment called for in the accord will be centered around Ramallah, and the third around Hebron. All three redeployments, which are linked to Palestinian steps to live up to security commitments, are scheduled to be completed by January.
Amid the high drama of a Likud government turning over land to Palestinian control, the two sides were soon aiming verbal broadsides at each other over the release of prisoners, the building of bypass roads, the seizure of land, the opening of a safe-passage route between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and over numerous other issues still unresolved or unimplemented.
But the Palestinians, for all their anger and resentment, were being supremely careful not to risk a rupture. And the Israelis, too, were equally careful not to be a spoiler, despite the Netanyahu government’s need to mollify the hard- core right.
The reason: Clinton’s visit during the third week of December.
The president is scheduled to land at the Arafat Airport in southern Gaza, in what is being seen as a dramatic act of encouragement for Palestinian national aspirations.
After more than a year of delays, the two sides recently agreed to the airport’s opening on Tuesday after Israeli security concerns were met. The decision to name the airport after the Palestinian leader was made earlier this year.
Clinton’s speech next month to thousands of Palestinian representatives in Gaza — among them the members of the Palestine National Council — will furnish the occasion for revoking the Palestinian Covenant, as called for under the Wye accord.
The assembled delegates will vote by acclamation to abrogate the clauses of the document, originally published in 1964, that call for the eradication of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine.
It will not be quite the formal revocation by the PNC itself that Israel had demanded. But, given Clinton’s personal involvement, Jerusalem will have to swallow its reservations.
The same applies to all the arguments presented by the two sides in the period leading up to the presidential visit.
Barring a major act of terrorism that takes many Israeli lives, the weeks ahead hold out the prospect of much lip-biting, as the two sides repress some of the outbursts of anger that have become a routine part of their negotiations.
Behind the verbal fights this week, there seemed to be a nod-and-wink understanding between the two sides that much of the rhetoric is designed for domestic political purposes.
When Israel released a group of prisoners last Friday — another move called for under the terms of the accord — Palestinian officials insisted that they would not accept the release of common criminals; they wanted political detainees to be freed, saying this was called for under the terms of the accord.
Netanyahu, for his part, insisted that Israel would not free Hamas activists, and certainly no one with blood on his hands.
His denial that he had violated the Wye agreement was upheld by a U.S. Embassy spokesperson, who issued a statement saying the United States was unaware of any violation of the accord regarding the releases.
But, for all the protestations on both sides, some 100 political prisoners were among the 250 freed.
The Palestinians and their close allies, the Arab parties in the Knesset, make no bones about their hope that Netanyahu can hold his government together for the duration of the 12-week implementation period.
Their implicit message: If that requires throwing sops to the Israeli right – - then, up to a point, so be it.
There is real bitterness on the Palestinian side over Israeli plans to expropriate land to make room for more than a dozen bypass roads, which are designed to help Jewish settlers travel through the West Bank without having to traverse Palestinian villages.
One proposed road near Hebron, has aroused controversy within the Israeli Cabinet, with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon pushing for the plan while Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, heeding warnings from the army, opposes it.
The Palestinians also point to almost nightly land-grabs by settlers on hilltops near their settlements. Some of these are quickly quelled by the army and the police. Others are ignored.
Sharon has openly urged the settlers to seize what they can — which has provoked more than a few protests from Palestinian officials.
But even these protests are clearly being held in check.
The Palestinians are waiting for Clinton to land by the terminal of the airport named for their leader.