Will Israelis approve a peace deal?


JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) – Will the Israeli people approve the peace agreement evolving between their prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat?

That is the question exercising Israel, the Middle East and much of the world this last week of the year 2000.

The impact of the envisioned changes, not only on the lives of Jerusalemites but on all Israelis, are so vast and unprecedented that the tools of political prediction may be entirely inadequate.

In any case, Barak and Arafat were scheduled to meet Thursday in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, their first meeting since a failed summit in Sharm in October.

The agreement under discussion, encapsulated in a package of compromise ideas laid out over the weekend by President Clinton, aims to resolve some of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including Jerusalem, borders, refugees and settlements.

The agreement would divide control of Jerusalem based on Jewish and Arab populations, with Israel ceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians.

In addition, a Palestinian state would be created on some 95 percent of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Israel giving the Palestinians additional land alongside Gaza in the Negev Desert.

In exchange, Israel would annex land adjoining its 1967 border with the West Bank. Most of the post-1967 Jewish settlements have been built in these areas.

The Palestinian refugees, in turn, would be absorbed into other Arab countries, resettled in the Palestinian-ruled areas, or given financial compensation. In addition, Israel would consider limited return within the pre-1967 borders.

The question of whether Israelis eventually will back the deal is predicated on the assumption that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority will give their assent.

While the Israeli government appeared inclined to accept the ideas in principle, the Palestinians seemed more hesitant.

In Israel, Barak and his close aides have been openly pressuring uncertain Cabinet ministers to back the deal.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who led the Israeli team in the talks with Clinton and the Palestinians in Washington over the weekend, said Tuesday that Israel “can live with” the Clinton’s proposals on the Palestinian refugees’ demand to realize their “right of return.”

Several ministers, including Science Minister Matan Vilnai, Health Minister Roni Milo and Diaspora Affairs Minister Roni Milo, came out strongly against giving up sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

The Palestinian leadership was deliberating night and day this week, facing powerful resistance to the proposals from the refugee community, especially in the camps in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

Palestinian leaders said Wednesday that they had reservations about the proposals. Reports conflicted, with some saying that the Palestinian Authority would reject the plan, and others saying only that they would request further clarification of its main points.

The international community, working at less than full throttle during the holiday period, was bringing its influence to bear on the P.A. leadership.

Israel also was seeking to mobilize Egypt and Jordan to pressure Arafat.

Clinton had asked for the two sides’ answers by Wednesday, but in fact he will have to wait at least until the weekend.

Clinton can hardly wait much longer, however, as he gives up the keys to the Oval Office on Jan. 20.

If the two sides respond positively, the next step will probably be for Clinton to meet with each of the leaders in Washington to work on last-minute demands that both are likely to make in an effort to improve the package.

If there is progress among the leaders, lower-level negotiators will work out wording, finalize maps, formulate security arrangements and agree on time lines, all so that there can be a grand ceremony at the White House before Clinton departs.

President-elect George W. Bush would also presumably be there to signal his backing for what inevitably would be a long and problematic implementation process. What is being debated now is only a framework agreement; details would have to be negotiated, a process that could take up to a year.

In any case, even a White House signing ceremony would only mark an initialing of the deal. The agreement has no validity until approved by the two nations.

On the Palestinian side, that approval process could take the form of a plebiscite.

More likely, however, the leadership organs of the Palestine Liberation Organization would be convened to consider the historic accord that Arafat has brought.

On the Israeli side, the process is clear-cut: On Feb. 6, Ehud Barak faces Likud Party Chairman Ariel Sharon in elections for prime minister.

For Barak, victory would mean that the nation has endorsed the agreement.

For Sharon, victory would mean that the electorate spurns Barak’s peace deal.

The opinion polls show Barak trailing badly now, but closing the gap significantly if he can clinch the peace deal before Feb. 6.

Barak dismisses those projections. He claims he can win even if the deal slips away, and he will win in a landslide if the White House ceremony takes place.

That, he says, is not because the voters will be impressed by the pomp and circumstance of the event, but because the Israeli nation yearns, above all else, for peace.

Barak may be right.

The Likud’s vehement protests against the ongoing negotiations suggest that – beyond their ideological opposition to the proposed concessions – – strategists on the right also believe a peace deal would sway large sections of the public.

Ultimately, however, this is virgin territory, and even the most sophisticated polling and most acute political instincts may be way off base.

Israeli observers who favor the government’s policy point to similarly unanticipated cataclysms in the past that swept along the public:

• Despite a decade of solemn declarations that it would not cede all of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel under Menachem Begin did precisely that in a peace deal with Egypt. Between 1979 and 1982, the government dismantled a string of settlements in the north and south of the peninsula.

• In 1993, despite three decades of solemn declarations that it would not recognize or negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel under Yitzhak Rabin did precisely that, signing the Oslo Accords that entailed mutual recognition between the two nations and set in motion the present peace process.

In both cases, politicians were astounded at the relative ease with which the public came to terms with the new situation, so different from the years of official rhetoric.

But Jerusalem, and especially the Temple Mount, may prove different.

“Have you no red lines at all, no values that are beyond any deal?” an emotional TV interviewer asked Justice Minister Yossi Beilin on Tuesday.

Beilin, a key architect of the peace process, responded angrily.

“Israel at peace, its capital, Jerusalem, recognized by the whole world, that is a fundamental Zionist value for me,” Beilin replied.

Beilin argued that Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, imposed unilaterally in 1967, is “virtual rather than real.”

In practice, Israel does not allow Jews to pray on the Mount, and the area is run by the Muslim Wakf, or religious authority.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert of Likud this week accused Barak of “duping and swindling” the nation by promising in the 1999 election to preserve the integrity of Jerusalem, and now negotiating its division.

He compared the premier to the Roman general Titus, who destroyed the Jewish Temple and burned the city in the year 70.

With that kind of chasm between leading politicians of the two camps, and with the electorate fragmented into such disparate sectors – Orthodox, Russian immigrants, Israeli Arabs, and others – no one can confidently predict how this fateful decision will go.

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