What has become known as the early-empowerment plan to withdraw Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho and give self-government to their Palestinian populations is conditional and reversible, warns Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin. The key condition is that local Palestinian authorities prove they can preserve order once the military occupation is lifted. As far as Israel is concerned, that mainly means preventing attacks on Israelis.
The onus is thus put on the Palestine Liberation Organization to prove that it can control the situation in areas where its standing has fallen considerably in recent years, while the influence of its political rival, the radical Islamic fundamentalist organization Hamas, has grown.
“If they (the PLO) can’t control their opposition and there is no order, we will say we can’t go on,” said Beilin in Jerusalem. A chief means of control is to be the establishment of a “strong” Palestinian police force, one whose numbers and degree of authority have yet to be decided.
At some point soon, Israel and the PLO are expected to formally recognize each other and begin direct negotiations. Then a new chapter in Middle Eastern history will open.
The PLO will gain the political standing it has so long sought. De facto , it will be accepted by its enemy as a legitimate and responsible negotiating partner, perhaps even as the forerunner of a provisional government. In return, Israel says the PLO must unambiguously renounce terrorism and abandon those parts of its covenant that declare Israel’s existence “null and void” and call for its destruction. It must also--and this is the point Beilin addressed--abjure the use of anti-Israeli violence both within and outside the disputed territories. From the Israeli view that means the PLO will be expected to prevent any anti-Israeli violence in or near the territory it expects to control.
Implementation of the early-empowerment plan will start the clock ticking on the five-year period of interim self-rule, by the end of which the two sides are supposed to have come to a final agreement. This is the timetable set by the U.S.-brokered Camp David agreements reached by Egypt and Israel in 1978.
What is about to begin, then, is a testing period of momentous consequences. For the Palestinians, it is a chance to show they can govern themselves, something they were never permitted to do under British, Egyptian, Jordanian or Israeli rule. For Israelis, it is the chance to see that their security won’t be imperiled by a military pullback from Palestinian population centers. It also is a chance for both the Israelis and Palestinians to show whether they can keep their more radical elements under control. Every step in this peace process will be hard. This first step could be the most challenging of all.