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As Push Mounts for Peace Talks, Many Ready to Revive Clinton Ideas

May 7, 2002
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Barely 10 weeks after they were presented in late December 2000, President Clinton’s bold Israeli-Palestinian peace proposals appeared to be dead and buried.

Palestinians had launched a new wave of terror attacks, Israel had a new, more hawkish prime minister, and a new American president, who vowed to follow a different route, had taken in power in Washington.

Even Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, when each left office early in 2001, announced that the generous offer that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had spurned was no longer “on the table.”

Yet just more than a year later, the “Clinton parameters” are enjoying a revival. Israel’s Operation Protective Wall temporarily crippled the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, but it also underlined just how explosive the situation is and how easily it could ignite a wider regional conflict.

In the international community, there now is a general consensus on the need for a credible political process to preempt new eruptions of violence.

Moderate Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egyptian and Jordan have been suggesting a return to the Clinton formula, and the Americans and Europeans have been listening.

The attraction is that the parameters offer a giant leap to the endgame. The downside is that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won’t touch them.

Recent peace initiatives — including the Saudi plan and President Bush’s “vision” for Mideast peace — all see the solution as two states, Israel and Palestine, coexisting side by side.

But none of the plans offers a clear road map on how to get there.

“We need Israel now to move directly to final status” negotiations, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said. “We need a roadmap. We need a calendar.”

Many believe the Clinton parameters are the missing guide.

“We don’t want to have to start from square one,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said, underlining the Arab demand that the peace talks resume from the point they broke off at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, with the Israelis and Palestinians negotiating on the basis of the Clinton parameters and, by all accounts, making considerable headway.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell last week announced that an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be held this summer. For it to be of any value, Arab states say, it must be convened on the basis of the Saudi plan — which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all territory won in the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for peace with the Arab world — and the Clinton parameters.

The Clinton parameters dealt with the three core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse — territory, Jerusalem and refugees.

On territory, Clinton proposed a Palestinian state in Gaza and 94 percent to 96 percent of the West Bank, with compensation for the remaining land from Israel proper. On Jerusalem, he proposed a division of sovereignty from neighborhood to neighborhood, based on demographics, and suggested various options for shared sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

On refugees, Clinton proposed that most go to the envisioned state of Palestine, some to Israel and others to a list of countries willing to absorb a set number.

The implication was that if the sides could tie up the loose ends on these key issues, they could reach a historical peace deal formally ending the conflict between them.

But Sharon is not ready to go down that road. Nearly 20 months of violence have shown that the Palestinians cannot be trusted to keep the peace, and that Israel should not be asked to make irreversible concessions that weaken its defenses, Sharon argues.

Sharon also is against dividing Jerusalem or allowing any refugees back into Israel proper.

Moreover, he has a major strategic problem with the territorial provisions of the Clinton parameters: He believes Israel must retain the Jordan Valley as a buffer to prevent Iraq, Syria and even Jordan from joining forces to attack Israel from the east.

Sharon envisages Israel having two defensive columns, one for defense against the Palestinians along the pre-1967 border with the West Bank, and one in the Jordan Valley for defense from the east.

Both zones would bite into West Bank territory, leaving any future Palestinian state with 85 percent or less of the West Bank.

Rather than a leap to final status, therefore, Sharon is proposing a more measured approach in three phases over an indefinite period.

First, he says, there must be a process of democratization in the Palestinian Authority, with all armed forces placed under one central authority and financial transparency instituted to prevent development funds donated by Europe from being used again to finance terrorist attacks against Israel, as Israel says they have been used in the past.

Second, for a trial period, there would be a Palestinian state on part of the territory only. Third, negotiations on final borders, Jerusalem and refugees would take place only after the trial period proves successful.

Sharon is convinced that there is no chance of achieving real peace as long as Yasser Arafat is the Palestinian leader. For his key tete-a-tete with President Bush this week, Sharon brought documents to Washington detailing Arafat’s involvement in financing terrorism against Israel.

Sharon hopes the “Arafat file” will serve to discredit the Palestinian leader and spark international and Arab pressure for change at the top.

Among themselves, the Palestinians also are talking about the need for reform, which some Israelis see as the most encouraging result of Operation Protective Wall.

As they survey the ruins of their cities, towns and villages, Palestinians from all walks of life are asking where suicide bombings have brought them. There is widespread talk of the need for a leadership and policy shake-up, and of the need for financial transparency and unification of armed forces.

But no one in the Palestinian camp talks about deposing Arafat.

The key question is whether the Palestinian drive for change will lead to accommodation with Israel on the Sharon model or something like it, or whether Sharon’s failure to put anything as bold as the Clinton parameters back on the table will end in new waves of Palestinian violence.

Gilead Sher, one of the chief Israeli negotiators under Barak, still believes the Clinton parameters offer the only viable long-term solution.

Not long after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, Sher predicted that, sooner or later, the parties would come back to Clinton’s outline.

“After rivers of blood, God forbid, we will come back to the same table for the same deal,” he declared. “No responsible Israeli government — not even a right-wing government — will be able to do anything else.”

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