Making peace: the closer it comes, the harder it gets

June 11, 2000|By Barry Rubin

TEL AVIV -- After 75 years of conflict and seven years of negotiations, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are nearing the finish line. Many serious problems make success harder but by no means impossible.

The latest apparent setback was last week's majority vote in Israel's parliament to call early elections. This outcome seems a serious defeat for Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his effort to forge a deal with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, it is more a headache than fatal illness for both the government and the peace process.

Israel's 52-year history has seen 1,000 coalition crises. In only two cases -- in 1977 and in 1999 -- did a government fall and the opposition take power. Such battles usually result from smaller parties' attempts to intimidate a prime minister by saying, "Give us what we want or we will sink the ship."

In this case, everyone knew the early election bill would have to pass twice more before being implemented. Thus, smaller parties knew they could pressure Mr. Barak without much risk. Indeed, these defectors don't want early elections, which might cost them seats and discredit their leaders. After giving Mr. Barak a scare, they could bargain for the price of future loyalty.

Obviously, this doesn't make Mr. Barak's tasks easier, but it certainly doesn't signal the government's fall, either.

The three coalition partners opposing the government of which they were members are Shas (a religious party of Jews originating in the Middle East), the National Religious Party (a modern Orthodox party) and Israel B'Aliya (a party of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Russia). Each has its own motives for pressuring Mr. Barak.

Most important is Shas, parliament's third-largest party, which has earned a reputation for corruption. Shas demands more money for its mismanaged school system. By threatening a walk-out, Shas gains leverage for receiving these funds. But if it does walk out, Shas may get nothing. And if it brings down the government, Shas might lose many of its current seats in parliament.

At the same time, all three parties are on the right wing of Mr. Barak's coalition. Mr. Barak, though, is unlikely to change his stance since he already knew these views must be taken into account.

Clearly, what is needed is an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that both sides' leaders can accept and persuade public opinion to endorse. This is hard but by no means impossible. For the first time in history, a real discussion is under way about defining a long-term solution to one of the world's most passionate, complex issues.

There are a million controversial details to work out but three specific points pose the biggest problems:

Borders. Israel is ready to agree to a Palestinian state, including all the Gaza Strip and 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank. Small areas of the West Bank, with Jewish but not Palestinian residents, would be annexed by Israel.

Some of this land includes key strategic areas for defending Israel. Other parcels would allow a large part of the Jewish settlers to be incorporated into Israel, letting Mr. Barak split the opposition and claim that he obtained a good agreement.

The Palestinians still publicly demand all of the West Bank and Gaza. They now hint at very small territorial concessions or speak of "trading" territory with Israel. This is an extremely difficult problem, but some compromise could be found.

Refugees. Clearly, Israel will not allow entrance for Palestinian refugees from 1948 who want to destroy it. But it would agree that a Palestinian state could admit all Palestinians who wanted to live there. Some international system could be set up to compensate for lost properties.

The Palestinian position still publicly demands that all refugees be allowed to return. Palestinian leaders privately hint that compensation could be accepted instead but find it very hard to admit that no "right of return" will take place. This, too, is an extremely difficult question, but some compromise could be found.

Jerusalem. This is by far the biggest problem. Israel insists that largely Arab East Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control. It suggests small areas could be given to the Palestinian state for a capital.

The Palestinians publicly demand that all East Jerusalem must be their capital. Privately, Palestinian leaders say that Jewish areas of East Jerusalem could remain under Israel's control.

There are dozens of proposals for solving the East Jerusalem issue. What is important is not the ingenuity of the ideas -- shared control, boroughs, split rule of various types -- but what the two sides can accept. A resolution would have to prevent the city from being divided again while finding some way that both sides could claim elements of rule over different neighborhoods.

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