WASHINGTON - Amid small hopes and large odds, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed yesterday, this time in Taba, Egypt, without U.S. sponsorship.
President Clinton's high-profile midwifery to the peace process expired with his term in office, and President Bush is still formulating his administration's Middle East policy. That leaves Israel's Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to try to clinch a peace deal by themselves before Barak stands for election Feb. 6. Arafat has said the talks could last up to 10 days.
Barak had hoped that an agreement would boost his chances against opposition leader Ariel Sharon, whom he trails badly in the polls. But few people expect a substantive pact now.
The talks resume against a backdrop of continued Israeli-Palestinian violence, known as the Aqsa Intifada, in which more than 300 have died.
David Ivry, Israel's ambassador to the United States, spoke yesterday with Jay Hancock, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, about the chances for peace, and about an Israeli-U.S. agreement signed last week to phase out U.S. economic aid of $1.2 billion a year by 2008 and boost U.S. military assistance to $2.4 billion a year.
Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force commander who directed Israel's raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, is scheduled to speak today at the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs.
The peace talks have started up again. What are the chances of success?
Normally I'm saying that the unexpected is the most expected in the Middle East. Nobody was expecting to actually launch the talks now, immediately after President Clinton left office. ... But I think in some ways the Palestinians understood that maybe they are going to lose an opportunity. ...
I'm not trying to say there's an illusion that they can finish it in 10 days. The gaps are still very, very deep. They can maybe come up with a framework agreement or something like this, but not something that gets into all the details.
But I think they understand that maybe they are going to have a major effect on the election in Israel. And Feb. 6 is coming very fast, so maybe they think they can do something before that.
The parties have been working hard on this for almost a year, without success. Why try now?
This is a question you should ask the Palestinians. We have been trying very hard not only for one year, but seven years. And all of the time - most of the time - the Palestinians have not been very cooperative in the talks. That's why it's now their initiative.
Do you think any agreement reached now, so close to the election, would be legitimate? Even members of the prime minister's party have wondered about that.
It's not a question of "legitimate" from a legal point of view. It is always legitimate for any government to talk until it's been replaced. This is a rule in our country. It's not a legal issue. A government which is now coming into transition - can they do something which is going to get all the support of the Knesset or the people? This is the question.
What role do you think the Bush administration will play in the peace process?
It's still too early. They haven't settled down to decide what they are going to do. But there is a lot of speculation or assessment about it. First, that it's maybe not the first priority on their agenda, which may be right.
But the other side of it is, if you are leaving the Middle East, you cannot leave it, because the Middle East is going to come to you. Nobody can ignore the problems over there. There is no vacuum. If it's not the United States that's going to be in, maybe Europe or other countries, Russia and others, are going to get into a position that when there is going to be a crisis, the United States will find themselves in such a position in which they are going to be much less capable to be efficient, like they have been in the past. ...
What's the mood in Israel now?
Not a high mood. Different reasons. There's frustration about the option to make peace with Arafat, as a leader. I think this has been exposed during the violence. Even on the left-wing side, what used to be called the peace camp, in Israel, there were a lot of expectations that once Israel came with concessions like Prime Minister Barak came with ... we could make peace. There was a lot of disappointment mainly on the left wing side, in the peace camp, that Arafat didn't accept it.
How close is the region to war?
One encouragement that I can see in the situation, which is not too much now, is the feeling that Egypt, for instance, doesn't want to have a major war. ... I would say, beyond Iraq and Iran - which, for both of them, I don't know how to assess their attitude - I don't think that other countries in the region think that war is a good idea. ...
Has Israel responded too aggressively, some would say brutally, to the new intifada?