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News Analysis: Peace Talks; the Same Old Thing, but with a New Twist – Time Limits

June 7, 2000
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We have seen and heard it all before. A high-level U.S. official visits the Middle East during an impasse in Israeli- Palestinian talks; a hurried series of meetings with both sides; the announcement of a new venue for the negotiations.

But while there is more than a small element of deja vu to this week’s events, there is nonetheless something new about the scenario.

When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators return to Washington next week for a new series of talks, they will have only a limited number of weeks to hammer out the details of a final peace agreement.

Gone are the days when they could afford to engage in the three B’s – – bickering, blaming and blustering.

This time around, they will have to get it right.

If they don’t, it could be months before the much-vaunted window of opportunity will open again.

The two sides have already missed two deadlines for coming up with an outline of a final peace agreement. The deadline for reaching the full agreement itself — Sept. 13 — is fast approaching.

In a matter of months, President Clinton — who would like nothing better than to cap his presidency with a historic Middle East accord — will be unable to provide such a legacy.

When the U.S. election campaign heats up — and after the elections as well, when there will be a new president-elect and Clinton will be a veritable lame duck — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will have trouble asking the United States to act as referee for their sparring.

To get undivided American attention, the two sides will have to wait at least until next Jan. 20, when Clinton’s successor will be inaugurated. Indeed, they will have to wait even longer than that, since the next president will hardly be able to tackle the vagaries of the Middle East peace process as soon as he moves into the White House.

When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Tuesday that the “moment of truth” for reaching a final agreement is near, she likely was referring to considerations just like these.

Indeed, Albright must have spent part of her visit to the Middle East this week reminding the two sides — if they need such reminding — that they do not have forever.

She also devoted a considerable portion of her visit to narrowing the gaps in the two sides’ positions to the point where a summit later this month involving Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would be worthwhile.

Last week, during a meeting with Clinton in Portugal, Barak said there was little point in holding such a summit, given the stances of the two sides.

This must have been bad news for Clinton, given his desire to hold one more signing ceremony during his tenure at the White House.

When Albright persuaded Barak and Arafat to agree to send negotiators to Washington next week, it was as much to serve Clinton’s political goals as their own.

In fairness to the two sides, it is to some degree understandable why they are continuing to engage in the three B’s.

Nearly seven years ago, when Israel and the Palestinians launched the Oslo peace process, they agreed to defer the most difficult issues separating them – – including the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

As unpalatable as it may be — perhaps no less than it was seven years ago – – they now have to deal with those issues.

Every day, there are reports that Israel has conceded something — or that the Palestinians are foregoing something — followed by swift condemnations by some aggrieved party and equally swift denials from one or both sides.

But there is another reason why this cannot continue much longer.

In the absence of an agreement by September, Arafat will come under pressure, perhaps irresistible, from his constituency to declare a Palestinian state.

Should he do so, when the two sides have been unable to agree on what the precise borders of such a state should be, the two sides could find themselves confronting bigger problems than they have now.

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