Why is the latest peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in danger when both sides started off largely meeting the terms of their commitments? As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to delay implementation of the Wye memorandum for the umpteenth time, it’s clear that mere compliance with the letter of the accord is not enough.
The agreement is threatened because the deep distrust that evolved between the two sides over the past few years did not dissipate when Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat signed the deal. Almost from the moment he returned to Israel from the Wye summit, Netanyahu has antagonized the Palestinians as well as his American allies. Until the Israeli government changes its attitude, it will be difficult to resolve issues that have evolved outside the text of the agreement, much less move forward to productive final status negotiations.
Recent Israeli bluster and Palestinian rioting mask the fact that both sides met most of their major Wye obligations during the month after the agreement. The Israelis turned over the first parcel of additional territory to the Palestinians, allowed the Gaza International Airport to open, released the first group of Palestinian prisoners, allowed the opening of the Karni industrial park in Gaza and participated in joint meetings on economic issues.
For their part, the Palestinians took significant steps to fight terrorism, resumed full security cooperation with Israel, outlawed incitement to violence, ordered the surrender of illegal weapons and reaffirmed Palestinian nullification of provisions of their charter calling for the elimination of Israel.
True, both sides violated the accord on occasion. The most serious Israeli transgressions were missing deadlines specified in the Wye timetable, delegating to itself the right to unilaterally revoke the Wye memorandum and engaging in settlement expansion that violates a provision calling on both sides to refrain from changing the status of the territories. The Palestinians have made serious statements of incitement and broken their promise to abide by internationally accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law.
Yet most of the shouting has not been about these formal violations. It has been generated by the unwillingness of both sides to accommodate each other on disagreements arising outside the letter of the accord. For example, Netanyahu has criticized Arafat for continuing to discuss his aspirations for Palestinian statehood, although nothing in the agreement requires such restraint. At the same time, the Palestinians have been infuriated over Israel’s refusal to release political prisoners, not common criminals, from jail. The U.S. affirmed Netanyahu’s rights under the accord to release whichever prisoners he sees fit.
The three-way meeting between President Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat on Tuesday highlighted the continued significance of these issues. Netanyahu emerged afterward to say that he would not withdraw troops from the West Bank on this Frieay as required, citing a list of steps the Palestinians must take before any further redeployment. At the top of his list were demands for the Palestinians to drop plans to unilaterally declare a state in May and to agree to Israel’s criteria for the release of Palestinian prisoners.
These extraneous matters could be worked through if there were sufficient goodwill on both sides to discuss them. But goodwill is in short supply. Even the United States, which brokered the Wye agreement, agreed to verify compliance with its terms and offered to put up more than $1 billion to help implement the pact, has not been immune from Israeli criticism. Clinton’s trip to the region was specifically written into the Wye memorandum to lend American prestige to the Palestinian reaffirmation of changes to their charter (a long-held demand of Netanyahu). Yet Clinton’s participation was met with open disdain by the Israeli Cabinet and by the prime minister himself, who saw it as a sign of warming U.S.-Palestinian relations at the expense of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Active U.S. participation in the peace process and better American relations with the Palestinians do nothing to diminish the historically close bond our country has had with Israel for more than 50 years. However, if Netanyahu persists in antagonizing the Palestinians and an American president who is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, distrust will continue to reign in the Middle East and a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain elusive.