News Analysis: Israel Braces for Turmoil After Camp David Failure

With the failure of the Camp David summit, Israelis are bracing for a political shift and increased tensions with the Palestinians.

But the future of the peace process remains uncertain.

The coming days and weeks will witness a complex interplay between events in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas. How these events will come together is difficult to predict.

Speculation is now rampant over what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s next steps will be – whether he will seek a national unity government with the Likud Party opposition, try to rebuild his coalition or seek early elections.

At a news conference immediately after the summit’s collapse, Barak said, his voice heavy with fatalistic resolve, that the people of Israel “will know how to unite in the face of danger.”

The tenor of his remarks seemed to indicate he expects more strife ahead, rather than more diplomatic efforts to bridge gaps that proved unbridgeable during the summit.

In Jerusalem, seasoned political observers said he was referring to political strife, not military conflict.

They said Barak’s talk of danger and unity was a hint about forming a national unity government with Likud.

Other Israelis, as well as some American and Palestinian pundits, preferred to focus on a comment that President Clinton made Tuesday.

In his own post-summit news conference, Clinton said the issues discussed at Camp David needed “to percolate” for some time before their full effect could be gauged and the way forward clearly seen.

In particular, Clinton said, a debate had already begun within Israel over the issue of Jerusalem, which he described as the “most difficult problem” blocking Israel and the Palestinians from reaching an agreement at Camp David.

Barak, too, welcomed the “significant and legitimate debate” regarding Jerusalem that the summit has triggered within Israel.

The prime minister mentioned at his news conference, almost in passing, that a senior U.S. official would soon be dispatched to the Middle East in an effort to salvage the peace process from what he described as the “heavy blow” it had suffered from the failure of the two-week summit.

Not all Israelis, however, were pessimistic about efforts to renew the negotiations.

Legislator Uri Savir, a longtime peace negotiator and a member of the Center Party, predicted that Tuesday’s collapse would only result in a brief hiatus and that the peace process would go on through other channels.

Recommending face-to-face talks without an American presence, he noted that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had several times in the past brought the peace process into crisis, only to allow it to resume and move forward in subsequent rounds.

Barak sounded a defiant note at his news conference Tuesday, saying he had done everything he could to try to reach a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. He also said he still hoped to end the Israeli-Arab conflict – but not at any price.

Barak placed the blame for their failure squarely on Arafat.

Despite Israel’s willingness to make far-reaching concessions, Barak said, Arafat could not yield on Jerusalem.

“The vision of peace is not dead, but it sustained a heavy blow because of the Palestinian stubbornness,” Barak said. “Arafat was afraid to take the historic decision needed at this time to bring an end to the conflict.”

Barak also said Israel’s positions “received full legitimacy from the American government” – a claim that was backed up by Clinton, who indicated at his news conference that the Israeli side was more willing to compromise than the Palestinians.

While he praised both sides for making “progress on all the core issues,” the president said “it is fair to say” that Barak “moved forward from his initial position more” than Arafat.

At the same time, however, Clinton made it clear that he was not blaming anybody.

He said his comment was “not so much as a criticism of Chairman Arafat, because this is really hard and had never been done before, but in praise of Barak.”

For his part, Barak said all concessions and proposals Israel had agreed to during the course of the summit were now “invalid” and could not serve as an opening point for any future discussions.

He refused to comment directly on whether he had agreed to a form of Palestinian sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem.

Barak cited a statement from all three parties released at the end of the summit calling on all sides to refrain from unilateral measures and to try to prevent violence. The trilateral statement also said Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to continue seeking a peace accord.

Barak called on the Palestinians to work against extremists and prevent any deterioration of the situation.

He also called on Israelis to put differences aside in facing the new uncertainties.

Pressure is likely to build, observers noted, with the approach of the Sept. 13 deadline the two sides had agreed on for reaching a final agreement.

Barak reiterated his long-standing warning that if Arafat goes ahead with a unilateral declaration of statehood if there is no agreement by Sept. 13, Israel would respond with unilateral steps of its own.

This has previously been taken to mean that Israel would annex settlements in the West Bank.

The future that Barak was not willing to comment on, however, was his political one.

Barak was elected last year on a platform of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. He found himself on the eve of Camp David without a parliamentary majority. Three political parties walked out of the government in protest against the negotiations with the Palestinians and concessions they presumed Barak would make.

At the news conference, Barak sought to deflect questions on his next political steps.

“I would not take such a daring step as forming a national unity government without consulting” the media, Barak said, trying to brush off the question. “We will consider on our return to Israel what is right to do.”

But despite Barak’s efforts to skirt the question in the public arena, Israel’s political sphere was already positioning itself for the anticipated new political reality.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky, who pulled out of Barak’s coalition before the start of the Camp David summit, said he would back a unity government.

But legislator Silvan Shalom of Likud said there was no basis for such a government.

“The thing for Prime Minister Barak to do now is to go toward new elections,” Shalom told Israel Radio. “I must say to Barak’s credit that he knew the price of peace, and stopped.”

Meanwhile, there is concern about how the summit’s failure will play among Palestinians.

For weeks, observers have warned that its failure could lead to an outbreak of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said Tuesday the army was prepared for anything.

Israeli media reported after the summit collapsed, Mofaz assessed the situation and there did not appear to be any immediate need to beef up forces in the Palestinian territories.

Shortly after the suspension of the summit was announced, Hamas called on Arafat to return to armed struggle against Israel.

“The solution now is that Mr. Arafat and the negotiators declare the failure and futility of the entire peace process and return to the path of resistance and jihad,” or holy war, senior Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantissi told reporters.

“I renew my request to give Hamas a five-year chance to work its jihad and resistance. Within five years, Hamas will be able to achieve the gradual liberation of all of Palestine,” he said.

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