A rocky path lies ahead for Mideast talks

Accord: As negotiations begin on a final peace, Israelis and Palestinians must deal with the toughest issues.

November 05, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Here's one measure of how far Israelis and Palestinians have come toward peace: When they met in Oslo, Norway, more than six years ago, they did so in secret. No Israeli government was prepared to deal openly with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

Now the meetings are in the open, and handshakes -- sometimes hugs and kisses -- are routine. But the sides are still short of peace, for the hardest parts have been saved for last.

It was to help close those final gaps that President Clinton -- with a big assist from Leah Rabin, widow of slain Israeli peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin -- brought Arafat and Rabin's protege, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to Oslo this week. Both men promised a good-faith effort to move ahead toward a final agreement in less than a year.

If they succeed, they will bring a formal end to a century of bloody confrontation that has seen five wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The fundamentals are contained in United Nations resolutions calling for Israel to return land captured in the 1967 Middle East war in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors. The West Bank was taken from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in a war that lasted only six days but changed the political geography of the region. The United Nations added substantial maneuvering room for Israel by recognizing its right to secure borders.

A lot has happened in the six years since the original Oslo accords were signed, even allowing for an interlude during the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the peace process came to an effective standstill.

Significantly, Israel accepted the Palestinians' choice of Arafat as their leader after years of vilifying him as a terrorist who could never join discussions of peace. After ending a long exile, Arafat divides his time between Gaza City and the West Bank city of Ramallah and presides over a young, unsteady government.

After decades of occupation -- first by Jordan and then by Israel, Palestinians now have considerable control over their own lives, as the Palestinian Authority has taken over many civic functions. For the Palestinian people, this is something of a mixed blessing, because Arafat shares the autocratic tendencies, corruption and cronyism common among Middle East leaders.

Palestinians have also gained some of the trappings of sovereignty, such as their own airport and license plates, and high-visibility commercial enterprises such as the Oasis casino in Jericho. All were simply unthinkable a decade ago.

Still, there are frequent reminders that ultimate authority is in Israel's hands. Israel controls the borders and access to Jerusalem. It decides who can move freely between Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza. And repeated border closures have disrupted Arabs' ability to work in Israel, dealing a blow to the Palestinian economy.

One of the biggest sources of continued tension is the land. Starting with Gaza and Jericho, Israel has been withdrawing its occupation forces in negotiated phases, relinquishing some territories outright and in others sharing control with the Palestinian Authority. Even in areas under Palestinian control, Israel has kept hold of small pockets to protect Jewish settlements.

The result is a patchwork of Palestinian areas interspersed with Israeli-held zones that leaves Palestinians wondering if they will ever have something that could be called a state.

While withdrawing from some areas, Israel has strengthened its grip on others by enlarging settlements and building highways to link them with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

For Israel, the past six years have hardly been tranquil.

The assassination of Rabin four years ago by a Jewish zealot was a horrifying reminder of how fiercely some Israelis opposed any concessions to the Palestinians. When Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, continued moving ahead, enemies of peace on the Arab side unleashed a wave of bombings in Israel that left scores of Israelis dead. Fearful for their safety, Israelis voted in the next election for a government that put security before peace.

So flagrantly did Netanyahu slow the peace process that his government was snubbed by much of the world, including the United States.

Now, leaders on both sides are ready once again to move forward. Barak basks in a peacemaker's international approval, committed to the notion that agreements will enhance Israel's long-term security. Arafat's health is uncertain, giving him an incentive to nail down a settlement while he still can.

Final status issues

The issues that remain to be negotiated in the final status talks beginning next week are clear. They have been put off until now because they are tough at best, insurmountable at worst.

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