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News Analysis: Israel Enters Decisive Moment in History with a House Divided

June 28, 2000
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After years of talking about it, anticipating it and preparing for it, a divided and unprepared Israel this week faced what may at last be the decisive phase of the peace process.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew into the region Tuesday to determine whether the time is ripe for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to attend a Camp David-like summit with President Clinton.

But even before her arrival, key members of Ehud Barak’s battered coalition said they would not attend such a meeting even if the premier asked them to join him.

Indeed, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky said Monday that “on the basis of the present, narrow government and on the basis of the present method of negotiating” with the Palestinians, he would pull out of the government the moment Barak decided to go to Washington.

On the other side of the negotiating table, Palestinian officials from Yasser Arafat on down hardened their positions on the eve of Albright’s visit.

While they affirmed that the coming days and weeks are “critical” for the peace process, they accused Israel of inflexibility while they themselves insisted on recovering virtually all of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

Hours before Albright arrived Tuesday, Arafat made it clear that he would make no new concessions in the talks aimed at reaching a final peace accord. The preceding day, he repeatedly said there is no point to holding the summit now.

There was even tougher rhetoric from Arafat on Sunday, when he warned of a possible new intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and asserted he would soon unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state.

But there were also signs of cooperation before Albright’s visit. There was a meeting Sunday night over dinner and drinks that brought Arafat and his top aides together with Barak’s main negotiators, Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and lawyer Gilad Sher.

Reinforcing the possibility that there is more cooperation than meets the eye, Ben-Ami spent time Monday briefing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, on the state of the talks with the Palestinians.

For the most part, however, this was a week of discordance.

Sharansky was foremost among Barak’s ministers sounding dissonant notes, but there were others.

Sharansky called over the weekend for a national unity government, with the opposition Likud joining the Labor-led coalition.

This government, he argues, enjoying wide popular support, would be able to set “red lines” beyond which Israel would not go in the final-status talks with the Palestinians.

Yitzhak Levy, the leader of the National Religious Party, another coalition partner, echoed Sharansky’s resignation threat.

Along with other ministers, some from Barak’s own party, Levy complained that Barak and his negotiators were keeping the Cabinet in the dark about the progress of the talks.

Foreign Minister David Levy was among the disgruntled Cabinet members. This week, he upbraided “certain ministers” for adopting negotiating positions that leave Israel, in his view, “denuded of all our assets.”

For his part, Barak is trying to patch things up with Levy, to keep the NRP and Sharansky on board for as long as possible — and at the same time to pursue the negotiations with a new sense of urgency, as the sand in Clinton’s White House hourglass inexorably runs out.

Key Cabinet doves, among them Yossi Beilin of Labor and Amnon Shahak of the Center Party, publicly urged Barak this week to press ahead toward the summit, despite the growing unrest within his government.

Plainly, the gulf between rhetoric and reality is particularly wide at this time, as the leaders of the two sides strive to keep their final concessions under wraps pending the possible make-or-break summit.

For public consumption, Arafat speaks of the Palestinians’ inalienable right of return to homes they left during the 1948 War of Independence and the incontrovertible status of eastern Jerusalem as the Palestinians’ capital.

For public consumption, too, Barak’s office repeatedly downplays the validity of reports purporting to detail the present state of the negotiations, and of the shape of the evolving permanent status agreement.

According to these reports:

Barak is offering more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians;

He is proposing that Israel annex large Jewish settlement blocs, which would incorporate some 150,000 Jewish settlers in more than 100 settlements, while ceding 50 far-flung settlements whose 50,000 to 60,000 inhabitants would have to choose between returning to Israel and living under Palestinian rule;

He is prepared to cede sovereignty over the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, but with provisions for a small army presence at key points, to be beefed up instantly if any threat should arise from across the Jordan River;

He is prepared to consider formulations recognizing in principle the Palestinian right of return, but severely limiting it in practice;

The Palestinian state, which Israel would recognize, would be effectively a demilitarized state under the terms of the peace treaty.

Barak is prepared to see a Palestinian flag flying over the Temple Mount and to recognize a Palestinian capital in “Al-Quds,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Al-Quds would include such suburbs as Azariya and Abu Dis;

The Palestinians would recognize western Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The parts of eastern Jerusalem annexed by Israel in 1967 would remain in dispute for the time being, the subject of further negotiations. This would not prevent the two sides, together with Clinton, from proclaiming the end of the century-long conflict between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.

Clinton aspires to be able to make such a declaration as his presidency nears its end.

Barak also has this aspiration, calculating that however perilous his present political circumstances, a historic declaration of this kind would garner sweeping support in a referendum.

Arafat, elderly and unwell, dearly wants to lead his people to independence and peace before passing on the mantle he has worn for more than three decades.

If Albright sees the prospects as fair, or even only moderate for having a meaningful summit, Clinton, with little to lose and much to gain, will issue the invitations.

Barak is pressing for a date as early as July 5, right after the U.S. Independence Day.

The Palestinians, who insist such a date would be premature, would nonetheless not balk at a Clinton invitation.

A summit would be scheduled for 10 days or even two weeks, according to Israeli sources.

Clinton would be on hand daily, as he was during the 1998 Wye River negotiations, and as President Carter was at the original Camp David in 1978.

Some Israeli and U.S. sources spoke this week of a possible “series” of summits — apparently seeking to reduce the risks and dangers should the proposed summit conference fail.

But military circles here in Israel warn that no gimmickry will stop the wave of violence that could engulf the Palestinian territories — and spill across the present border-lines — should the summit fail.

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