LONDON, Sept. 8 (JTA) – Glittering ceremonies and lofty rhetoric are the essential byproducts of every milestone in Middle East peacemaking. And Saturday night’s gala at Sharm el-Sheik – significantly, on territory that Israel had withdrawn from in the context of an earlier peace agreement with Egypt – was no exception. Saturday’s signing ceremony was a party with a purpose, designed to deliver a raft of political messages: It signaled that the United States continues to perform a critical diplomatic role; that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a major player in the peace process; and that the new Jordanian King Abdullah, like his late father, Hussein, takes a close interest in Israeli-Palestinian developments. Not least, it provided an important platform for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. For Barak, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that he is not only serious about peace in general, but that he is in earnest about accelerating the pace of negotiations with the Palestinians in particular. For Arafat, the occasion assumed a more complex and nuanced significance. On one level, the assembled dignitaries – notably Mubarak and Abdullah – provided him with an essential umbrella of Arab legitimacy for his latest agreement. On another level, Arafat achieved a slew of tactical objectives by creating a last-minute crisis – over the number of Palestinian security prisoners Israel would release – and deliberately delaying the high-profile signing ceremony from its Sept. 2 scheduled date to Saturday evening. First, the on-again off-again talks preceding the agreement provided Arafat with an exercise in diplomatic arm-wrestling with the new Israeli premier. Barak, he knew, is a tough one-on-one negotiator, and when Arafat tested him under pressure over the issue of prisoner releases, the new Israeli leader did not blink. Second, the pre-signing standoff allowed Arafat to demonstrate to his domestic constituency – particularly over the prisoner-release issue – that he is a tenacious, if not always successful, negotiator. Third, it ensured that the Palestinian track continued to command attention throughout the side-visit to Syria and Lebanon on Saturday by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Fourth, and most important of all, it ensured that Albright played a role – however marginal – in the negotiations; that she was not the mere “handmaiden” of the peace process, as she and Barak would have preferred. Looking down the long and bumpy road of final-status talks – and the truly formidable issues that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will confront on the way toward a final peace agreement – Arafat was anxious to halt Washington’s retreat from the role of intrusive mediator it adopted during the less-propitious tenure of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Arafat, the veteran Palestinian campaigner who plays political chess two or three moves ahead of everyone else, knows that no other party can come close to matching the array of carrots and sticks that Washington would be able to deploy in the face of a reluctant Israel. He was determined to establish the principle of continued U.S. involvement by Washington in the negotiations themselves, to lock American officials inside the negotiating room, where they can lean on Israel when the issues become intractable. The ceremony at Sharm el-Sheik went far beyond the mundane business of celebrating another step on the path to peace: it provided an Arab imprimatur for the agreement, it set a time line for further progress and it created the contours for future negotiations. Under the agreement, Israel is committed to withdrawing from a further 7 percent of West Bank territory within days and to conduct two more withdrawals, on Nov. 15 and Jan. 20. Israel will also release 350 Palestinian prisoners, including 150 who have been in Israeli jails since before the 1993 launch of the Oslo peace process, but none who have been convicted of taking Israeli lives. On Wednesday, Israel’s Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the first of three withdrawals called for in the latest Wye II accord. With the Knesset set to give its own backing later in the day, Israel will soon transfer 7 percent of the West Bank – in an area located near Nablus – from full Israeli control to joint Israeli-Palestinian control. Meanwhile, Israeli officials say the release of a first wave of 200 Palestinian prisoners could take place in a matter of days. In addition, Israel has also agreed to establish two so-called safe passage routes for Palestinians traveling between the Gaza Strip with the West Bank, and to permit the Palestinian Authority to begin building a Gaza seaport. The agreement also commits the two sides to establishing negotiating teams in the coming weeks that will intensively address the difficult final-status issues, including the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlements, water, security, borders and the question of Palestinian statehood. The accord sets a target date of Sept. 13, 2000, for an agreement on these final-status issues. No doubt, Albright and her State Department officials are savoring the prospect of another glittering occasion close to that date as a fitting farewell gift – and lasting legacy – for a departing President Clinton. How realistic is the target date for concluding the final-status negotiations? It might be more appropriate to ask how realistic it is to reach an agreement on the issues at all. Technical solutions may be found for water, settlements, security, borders and statehood. But the issues of the refugees and Jerusalem go to the heart of the dispute, transcending rational, technical arrangements. Both are non-negotiable and no amount of sweet reason will be able to resolve them without a major concession coming from one side or the other. While Israeli leaders of all political hues declare Jerusalem to be the undivided, eternal capital of Israel under Israeli sovereignty, Arafat insists with equal vehemence that Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state. And while all Israeli leaders have declared that the return of the refugees will pose a mortal demographic threat to the existence of the Jewish state, it will be politically hazardous for Arafat to abandon them to a future in exile. The sort of creative, flexible diplomacy to which Albright alluded in her address at Sharm el-Sheik on Saturday may, perhaps, leave those issues “open for further discussion” – after, as now seems likely, the Palestinians run their standard up the flagpole on Sept. 13, 2000.
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