Amid Mideast violence, hints of peace emerge

Two-state vision at heart of efforts to end bitter conflict

March 25, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite the grief, anger and distrust resulting from 18 months of bloodshed, a variety of signs point to a revival of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that could lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The possibility that the Bush administration would work to guide the bitter foes back into peace talks seemed unthinkable just a couple of months ago, when the Israeli government and the White House treated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a virtual pariah.

But even amid the explosion of Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli retaliation in recent weeks, a number of developments have changed the outlook in Washington and the Middle East.

Together, they have brought onto the diplomatic horizon once again the faint outlines of a peace agreement that Israelis and Palestinians came tantalizingly close to reaching at the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2000.

Saudi Arabia, intervening publicly in the conflict for the first time, took the lead in offering Israel "normal relations" with Arab states in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the territory it occupied after the 1967 war.

The offer generated cautious hope among Israelis that the wall of hostility toward the Jewish state in the Arab world might be starting to crumble. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial Friday that the proposal could prove to be "an important element in the Arab states' positions toward Israel."

President Bush sent his envoy, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, back to the region to broker a cease-fire, and for the first time in months the United States acted forcefully to restrain Israeli retaliation. The United States demanded a withdrawal of Israeli forces from areas supposed to be under Palestinian control. Israel quickly began a pullback.

The United States won near-unanimous United Nations Security Council endorsement of a resolution "affirming a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders." The resolution drew praise from Israel and the Palestinians.

Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the Bush administration's most vocal critics of Arafat, offered to travel halfway round the world to meet with him if Arafat acted to suppress Palestinian terror.

Cheney put the meeting off indefinitely yesterday, saying Arafat had not done enough to justify it, but said he remained willing to go at some point.

Outlines for peace

The Saudi proposal, the U.N. "vision" and the Zinni cease-fire mission point in the same direction: toward a resumption of peace talks under U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the foundation for Arab-Israeli negotiations for more than three decades and the source of an international consensus on how to settle the half-century-old conflict.

Those resolutions call for Israel to trade territory it won in 1967 for peace with its Arab neighbors while upholding Israel's right to live within secure borders.

At Taba, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators made considerable progress in reaching a deal based on this formula, agreeing that "the June 4, 1967, lines would be the basis for the borders between Israel and the state of Palestine," according to a summary of the negotiations by European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos first published in Haaretz.

Though noting "serious gaps" and differences, Moratinos said both sides had "traveled a long way" to accommodate each other's views, even on Jerusalem, which they agreed would be the capital of two states. Talks broke off just before the elections that brought Ariel Sharon to power as prime minister.

The Taba negotiators, in turn, generally stuck to the outlines of an American proposal developed after the Camp David summit held by former President Bill Clinton collapsed in the summer of 2000. If the Bush administration gets to the point of putting forward a new plan, it would inevitably have to dust off the Clinton plan. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has spoken of a "viable" Palestinian state.

"We can't escape it; the ideas are out there," a U.S. official acknowledged. "We can't start drafting something without looking at it."

The recent developments grew out of a series of pressures on Bush, Sharon and Arafat.

Bush is under strong pressure from Arab allies to assert a major American role in solving the conflict before he tries to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"For them, we can only move on Iraq if everything is in order on the Israeli-Palestinian side," the official said. This point was underscored to officials traveling with Cheney on his recent 11-nation tour of the Middle East, the official said.

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