Clinton’s Law: Peace Summit Now, or Pay for Delay Later with Violence

When President Clinton announced he would host Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week at Camp David, he repeatedly sounded what might be called a “law” of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Given the wide gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions, this might not be the best time for a summit. But waiting for a better time, Clinton made clear, is a worse option.

“Delay tends to make these things worse, not better,” the president said at a news conference Wednesday, making one of his formulations of the “peacemaking law.”

He also provided a more detailed formulation: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as all of us have seen, knows no status quo. It can move forward toward real peace or it can slide back into turmoil. It will not stand still.”

In Israel, however, there were indications that attempts to move forward with the peace process could also provoke turmoil.

Clinton’s summit announcement prompted a rebellion in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s coalition from hawks fearing he will concede too much to the Palestinians at the summit.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky announced at a Jerusalem protest that he would submit his letter of resignation at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

“The prime minister is traveling” to Camp David “without trying to make consensus here,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky has repeatedly called on Barak to set “red lines” — firm boundaries on Israeli concessions — and to forge a Cabinet consensus before attending a summit.

Should Sharansky’s four-member Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party pull out, it would not bring down Barak’s government, but it could prompt further defections by other parties — particularly the National Religious Party, which has already said it would resign if Barak does not change course.

Barak, speaking earlier in the day before Sharansky made his announcement, vowed he would continue to pursue a peace agreement even if he had only “nine ministers and a quarter of the Knesset behind me.”

Clinton’s “peacemaking law” was borne out by events of the past several days.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the Middle East for a series of meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to determine whether now would be a fruitful time for a summit.

The period from when she returned to Washington until Clinton’s announcement on Wednesday was marked by uncertainty over whether the summit would indeed be held any time soon.

But public positions hardened during that period of uncertainty.

Meeting earlier this week in the Gaza Strip, the 129-member Palestinian Central Council, the so-called mini-parliament of the PLO, said Arafat would declare a Palestinian state in September if the two sides fail to achieve a final peace accord by then.

This, predictably, provoked an uproar among Israeli officials, who accused the Palestinians of making threats instead of seeking peace.

True, some members of the Palestinian Central Council were later quoted as saying that the group’s statement did not mention September and that the exact date for a declaration of statehood had purposely been kept vague to give Arafat flexibility in the negotiations.

But by Wednesday, Israeli tempers were flaring.

During quick stopovers that day in London and Paris, Barak told French and British leaders that Israel would take “unilateral steps” of its own if Arafat declares an independent Palestinian state without a peace deal.

Barak, who did not elaborate on what those steps might be, also warned of possible violence if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.

This, of course, could be considered a corollary of the “peacemaking law” that Clinton elucidated later that day at his news conference.

Even Israel’s dovish justice minister, Yossi Beilin, was infuriated by what emerged from the meeting in Gaza.

“I can tell them that a Palestinian state will not be created as long as Israel does not recognize it,” Beilin said.

“Even if the entire world recognizes a unilateral Palestinian state,” Beilin added, it will be a state only “on paper” without Israel’s recognition.

Clinton did not downplay the wide gaps separating the two sides when he announced the summit.

Lower-level “negotiators have reached an impasse,” Clinton said. “Movement now depends on historic decisions that only the two leaders can make.”

Indeed, the differences between the two sides extend to whether to hold the summit itself.

Barak has pushed for the summit as the last best hope for progress. Arafat is wary of the prospect, fearing that Clinton and Barak will gang up on him at Camp David and pressure him into making concessions.

Even after Clinton announced the summit, Palestinian officials remained sour about the idea, saying the gaps are still too wide.

In Israel, there were mixed predictions about what would emerge from the summit.

Cabinet minister Eli Yishai of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party agreed with the Palestinian view that the gaps are just too wide.

But Beilin was more optimistic.

He gave the summit a 50-50 chance of success.

Not the best of chances, but as Clinton would say, better than trying nothing at all.

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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