Stalled talks spur old foes into bold step

August 31, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The stunning breakthrough in the Mideast peace negotiations was the result of the region's two most adamant combatants finally deciding to take peacemaking into their own hands.

The Israeli leadership and Palestine Liberation Organization reached out to each other in mutual frustration over a stalemated formal peace process that was eroding each side's credibility with its populace, according to Arab and Israeli sources.

As the 10th round of formal negotiations ended in Washington early this summer, Israelis concluded they would have to hold discussions with "whoever could influence" the process, a diplomat said.

PLO officials, who had been unable to get the United States to bring new pressure on Israel to change its positions, decided it was "easier to talk to the Israelis straight out," says James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute.

Meeting secretly with high-ranking PLO representatives in Oslo, Norway, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reached a tentative agreement on a Palestinian autonomy plan that would put the crowded and impoverished Gaza Strip and the somnolent West Bank town of Jericho under Palestinian control, paving the way for a quasi-governmental PLO presence in the occupied territories.

For Mr. Peres, whose relations with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have at times been strained, failure could have sidelined him to a bystander's role in Israeli-Arab diplomacy. For PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, failure could have been a final straw in his struggle against those opposed to any peace with Israel.

A number of factors and trends contributed to the agreement, among them Mr. Peres' at-times lonely pursuit of a plan he thought would work, U.S. willingness to seek out initial funding for Palestinian autonomy, the PLO's desperate financial straits and angry internal dissatisfaction with the leadership of Mr. Arafat.

U.S. role reserved

The U.S. role was neither that of active mediator nor mere onlooker. Cool to the so-called "Gaza first plan," U.S. officials nevertheless stayed abreast of Israeli-PLO contacts from the start and welcomed the fact that the peace process had reached the point where each side could experiment on its own.

"Their own face-to-face contacts were preferable to having us step in," a senior U.S. official said. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher held that when "dynamic changes" are in the works, "the mediator slips into the background."

The U.S. role in halting mounting assaults on the Lebanese border in late July also averted a dangerous poisoning of the atmosphere and stimulated progress on the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track, in turn, encouraged the Palestinians.

But neither Israelis nor Palestinians could publicly embrace the "Gaza-Jericho-first" plan until it was virtually sealed. Mr. Rabin didn't publicly endorse it until yesterday, just before it was approved by his Cabinet. Simultaneously, Mr. Arafat began visits to Arab capitals to round up support.

From the opening of the Madrid summit in November 1991, Israel's refusal to deal directly with the PLO began to erode.

While barring both the PLO and Palestinians from outside the territories from negotiations, Israel's Likud government accepted as head of the Palestinian delegation Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, a founding member of the organization.

It also accepted a group of outside advisers, including Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, who made clear their loyalty to the Arafat leadership based in Tunisia.

Gradually, Israelis and Americans accepted the pragmatic advisory role of Nabil Shaath, a top adviser to Mr. Arafat.

But the Israeli-imposed restrictions on the delegation made the progress of talks difficult and cumbersome from the start, particularly since it undermined the legitimacy of the Palestinian negotiators with their own constituents.

As Palestinians chafed at the restrictions, some Israelis came to recognize them as well.

Election turning point

A major turning point came with the election of Mr. Rabin's Labor government in 1992, which made the peace process a top priority and installed Mr. Peres as foreign minister.

More than a year ago, the newly-elected Labor government announced that it would seek to lift a law barring Israelis from having contact with the PLO.

The signal that a long taboo was being smashed launched a series of informal contacts that eventually led to what has been dubbed the "Oslo channel," the meetings between Israelis and the PLO facilitated by the Norwegian government. The "Oslo channel" developed last year with academic contacts that led to sessions involving representatives of the Israeli government.

Meanwhile, advocates in Israel of contact with the PLO became increasingly vocal. In July, a Labor member of the Israeli Knesset, claiming that a majority of Cabinet ministers favored direct talks with Mr. Arafat, demanded publicly that they "come out of hiding."

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