Weakened Men at the Peace Table

February 07, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Davos, Switzerland -- The announcement of Israeli-Palestinian peace was meant to be the political set-piece of the World Economic Forum, held in this mountain resort a week ago. It failed to come off.

Insofar as the two sides can, at this point, deliver peace, they already have done so by entering into negotiations and accepting a Norwegian-brokered agreement on Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.

The obstacles lie now in the details, which unfortunately are very weighty, concerning security for both Palestinians and Israeli settlers, the latter essential to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. However, fundamentally the negotiations are dealing with the question of sovereignty. Are the Palestinians really to be sovereign in their territories?

Talks continued last weekend at Davos, where Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had been invited in the hope that the final problems could be solved and Israeli-Palestinian accord triumphantly be announced to the great and the good, the powerful and rich, assembled at Davos, together with a sizable part of the world's press.

Mr. Peres and, particularly, Mr. Arafat, giving the appearance of being under considerable tension, instead told a disappointed audience only that there would be agreement on the security issues ''very soon.''

What happened was that the government in Jerusalem had at the last minute objected to certain of the security provisions worked out between the two. Mr. Peres, it is said, is more optimistic about the future outlook for Palestine-Israeli cooperation than are Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and some other members of his government. Mr. Rabin was quoted this week as saying that he has more trust in Syrian President Hafez el Assad than in Mr. Arafat, since in the past the Syrian chief of state has kept his agreements, while no one knows if Mr. Arafat will be able to keep his.

Optimism or pessimism are at the heart of this affair, since both sides have to make an act of trust in the other, in circumstances where real reason exists to doubt that the other side can deliver what it is promising.

Mr. Arafat's position has greatly weakened in recent years, and his willingness in September to sign a joint declaration of principles on Palestinian autonomy and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho automatically drove out of his PLO all those who considered this too grave a Palestinian compromise.

A prudent Israeli must certainly ask what Mr. Arafat now really can deliver. A prudent answer might be that he can deliver more if the Israeli withdrawal does take place in April, as scheduled, on reasonably generous terms, with the Palestinians enjoying not only the symbols but the reality of sovereignty. But not all agree with that.

The Palestinians (and the Syrians, since the status of the Golan Heights is next on the Arab-Israeli agenda) similarly believe they could have more confidence in an agreement with Israel if a Likud government were signing for Israel, rather than the fragile Labor government of Mr. Rabin. (Israelis with whom I have spoken are nonetheless convinced that if a Likud government came to power, it would respect any agreement made by Mr. Rabin.)

Weakened men are making this agreement. Mr. Arafat does so because Palestinian unity is slipping away and he understands that what now has been offered the Palestinians is more than they are likely to have under any other realistically imaginable circumstances.

Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres are negotiating because the hard, combative and implicitly expansionist policy of successive Likud governments has led only to perpetuated violence and insecurity; and the Israeli people, in the last national election, indicated that they have had enough of that and want to try for a negotiated peace. On neither side, then, does optimism prevail, only a rather desperate recognition that only worse alternatives exist to what now is going on.

I had dinner last Sunday evening with several eminent Israelis, including a former ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval. Midway in the meal the headwaiter came up to Mr. Shoval, the host, to ask the conventional question, was everything all right. Mr. Shoval replied, ''Thus far.''

I was struck by this remark, which seemed to me a suitable Israeli response to larger questions than the one which concerned the headwaiter. A very qualified optimism is all that either Israelis or Palestinians can afford at this moment. However, that is more than was possible before these talks began.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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