Mideast Peace Prospects Unraveled as Acrimony Grew


Under armed guard, Israeli workers last week began erecting a 45-mile, $25-million concrete-and-iron fence between Israel and neighboring Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Although the Israeli government insists that the barbed-wire-topped barrier is for “security,” it has all the markings of a border--a final, definitive separation between the two sides in a conflict that has stubbornly defied all attempts at a negotiated settlement.

Separation, in the end, may be the only answer to this dispute, because any compromise seems too difficult. As President Clinton said Thursday, the Israelis and Palestinians have never been as close as they are now to an agreement; at the same time, they may never have been as far apart.

Having narrowed differences on important matters through months of arduous but civil negotiation, the two sides have been left, as the year closes, gazing at the most fundamental, stark disputes dividing them--issues so rooted in historical claims, ancestral lands and essential religious identities that there is little common ground.


A year that began with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak promising to seek an end to Israel’s conflicts with both neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians closes with Israelis and Palestinians separated by a chasm of fear and anger. The animosities, exposed and bare, have been only further stoked by three months of deadly violence and its accompanying bellicose rhetoric.

Today, no one knows whether the new year will bring a peace treaty, requiring once-unthinkable, traumatic concessions from both sides, or continued bloodshed--even war.

The year did not start out this way.

Barak, who was elected in 1999 to replace a right-wing, combative government, assumed power determined to reach a final “end-of-conflict” treaty with his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Arafat. Buoyed by public support for his decision to unilaterally pull Israel’s troops out of southern Lebanon, Barak turned his energies to the 52-year-old Palestinian conflict with breathtakingly ambitious confidence.


Dialogue as ‘Partners’ Suddenly Deteriorates

Barak and Arafat, initially, established a cordial rapport, calling each other “friends” and “partners” and eating hummus in long, late-night sessions. Their aides met regularly, hashing out technical arrangements of coexistence involving everything from water rights to trade.

Palestinian and Israeli security services were working together to battle terrorism; in some places, they even patrolled in combined units. Israeli tourists and shoppers were venturing into Palestinian cities with ease; Palestinians were enjoying a relative prosperity as their quasi-state developed economic strength. On one level, at least, a kind of peace prevailed.

Then it all came tumbling down. With alarming speed, the illusion of peace and cooperation disappeared. July’s Camp David summit, which ended in spectacular failure, was followed eight weeks later by the bloodiest confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis in decades.

Much of the year’s earlier closeness and optimism was a mirage, created by wishful thinking and the bleakness of the available alternatives. Although each side said the other was entirely to blame, the disintegration of the relationship can also be traced to a series of specific events and, arguably, mistakes made by all the key players.

Barak’s Lebanon Pullout Stuns Israel

In May, Barak stunned his nation with a swift, dramatic withdrawal from Lebanon, pulling troops from their “security zone” in Israeli’s northern neighbor almost overnight and ending a 22-year occupation. Barak was hailed as a hero at home for ending Israel’s most unpopular, traumatic war. Despite doomsday predictions that the Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas of southern Lebanon would follow the retreating troops into Israel and launch attacks on northern Israeli towns, the border has remained relatively calm.

But while Israelis rejoiced, or at least breathed a collective sigh of relief, Palestinians were taking away a very different lesson. The “war of attrition” that Hezbollah had inflicted on Israel--a campaign of roadside bombings and sporadic rocket attacks that claimed roughly 20 to 25 Israeli lives every year--had achieved its purpose by ultimately driving out the “occupiers.” According to this view, Israel responded to violence, not to negotiations.


With Lebanon behind him and aware of time running out on the Clinton administration, Barak then pushed for a moment-of-truth, make-or-break summit with Arafat and the U.S. to draft a final treaty ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arafat resisted going to the Camp David summit until the last minute, succumbing only to the pressure of Clinton and Barak. The Israeli premier very much needed the summit and an agreement; polls were already showing his popular support flagging badly. But Arafat was not ready. He said as much. And he wasn’t lying, as it turned out.

As it opened in the secluded forests of the presidential retreat in Maryland, where the first Israeli-Arab peace treaty was brokered by Jimmy Carter with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat two decades earlier, the summit proved to be more tense than most participants expected.

By the time the proposals were aired for dividing Jerusalem, a holy city claimed by both sides as their capital, Barak and Arafat had hardly spoken to each other. Reports that Barak was willing to cede some of Jerusalem to the Palestinians were already roiling Israelis. That willingness seemed a remarkable concession, at least to Israeli and American ears.

But for Arafat, the offer did not begin to go far enough. He needed sovereignty over the site Muslims call Haram al Sharif, Arafat told Clinton, or he would be considered a traitor to his people. The compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount. Barak was unwilling to cede the site. The summit collapsed.

In a move whose significance Clinton could not have anticipated, the American president implicitly blamed Arafat for the failure, going on Israeli television to pointedly praise Barak’s courage and vision.

It was too much for Arafat. Clinton, the Palestinians said, had betrayed them. The trust that Clinton had built up with Arafat through the years was shattered.

A number of gestures aimed at reviving talks followed--but to no avail. The Palestinians no longer saw the Americans as honest brokers and attempted to draw in the Europeans, even the Russians. Barak became engulfed in political troubles. His coalition government disintegrated. He was castigated by the opposition for making unacceptable concessions that, in the end, didn’t even produce an agreement. Tensions mounted on both sides.


Into this tinderbox strode Ariel Sharon, the former army general and mastermind of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon--a man reviled by Palestinians. On Sept. 28, Sharon led a group of Israeli politicians and a small army of police onto the Temple Mount. In rioting the next day at the same spot, Israeli forces shot dead four Palestinians, and the “Al Aqsa intifada,” named after the mosque that sits atop the plateau, was launched.

The shock that gripped the world at the sight of such unrelenting bloodshed was not matched in all quarters here. For all the evident progress, most Palestinians and many Israelis had remained very skeptical of their enemy’s intentions. Few Palestinians saw Barak as the man of peace, the decorated warrior turned peace-seeking statesman, that was his image in American newspapers and White House briefing rooms. Many Israelis doubted that Arafat would be satisfied with any deal that permitted the continued existence of the Jewish state, despite his renunciation of terrorism.

There were facts on the ground throughout the year that belied the hopes of diplomacy.

Israelis preferred to ignore the fact that an agreed-to third withdrawal from Palestinian territory had never taken place and that the building of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and of roads that sliced across Palestinian lands continued apace. If they thought about them at all, they saw the military checkpoints that made life a humiliating misery for Palestinians as a necessary security measure. They blamed Arafat, or his violent henchmen, for delays in enforcing signed agreements.

For their part, the Palestinians never fully reined in terrorists, never promoted the peace process in their textbooks or dealt with Israel as anything other than an enemy. They stockpiled weapons, multiplied the size and number of their security forces and refused to take illegal weapons away from thousands of civilians.

Deep Mistrust Persists Between Two Sides

For all the top Israeli and Palestinian mediators’ public talk of how well they knew one another, of the way they could ask after one another’s children, there remained deep mistrust at all levels of society and a lack of basic empathy. The two peoples clung to their stereotypes of one another. Neither side, for example, seemed to really understand what the Temple Mount meant to the other.

The gulf widened as the violence raged and the fragile web of trust and cooperation that had been woven between the governments and their security forces quickly unraveled. Rock-throwing demonstrations evolved into all-out gun battles, with the Israelis ultimately employing helicopter gunships and tank fire, and the Palestinians employing roadside bombs and ambush shootings.

There is no shortage of lack of understanding. Israelis are convinced that Palestinian parents deliberately send their children out to be killed in demonstrations. And even the most moderate of Palestinians fully believe that two Israeli soldiers who were lynched by a Palestinian mob in the West Bank in October were not lost but on a secret undercover mission.

Arafat Faces Difficult Choices

Today, once again, a new offer is on the table, “Camp David Plus,” as it is called, and the offer seems, to Israeli and many American eyes, irresistible for Palestinians. But Arafat does resist; in part, it is his style, to delay and push a final decision to the last possible moment. But it is also his dilemma, which Americans and Israelis haven’t always understood: He can risk the wrath of his people only so far.

Gaining control of East Jerusalem is the ultimate goal for many Palestinians, but a “right to return” for Palestinian refugees driven from their homes with the birth of Israel is just as sacrosanct to many more.

Does he sell out one ideal for the other?

The deal might be more acceptable to both sides if any trust between them remained. But there is none. Palestinians who might approve are skeptical that the Israelis will hold up their end of the bargain; Israelis are terrified that Palestinians allowed closer to their neighborhoods will become armed menaces.

Indeed, the long-term damage from the last months of bloodshed is immeasurable. Israelis who were once impassioned advocates of the peace process are now riven with doubt. Palestinian moderates have disappeared.

“Too much innocent blood was spilled,” said Maha Shamas, a left-wing Palestinian intellectual and social worker. “The people are in no mood for going back to where they were. . . . People will feel like the blood of their relatives has been shed in vain if they go back.”

Menachem Friedman, an Israeli sociology professor, said Israelis are confused and stunned to find themselves thrown back to a basic sense of insecurity.

“I thought that we were on the road to peace, and suddenly, the major problems of existence have been raised again,” he said. “It is frightening. Israelis are thinking: We are very vulnerable.”

It is too soon to say whether the Palestinians believe that their long new list of “martyrs” has been worth it, because so far they have nothing to show for it. At least publicly, they say they had little alternative.

“Remind me of an instance in the past,” Arafat’s chief negotiator, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, told an Israeli interviewer, “when Israel demonstrated sensitivity to something without being pressured to do so. With Egypt? With Lebanon? With us, before the [1993] Oslo agreement? Indeed, it is you who taught us that only by putting pressure on you do you relate logically to the demands of the other side.

“For seven years, we tried to talk, and what happened? Nothing. The Palestinian does not feel today that there is a real change in his situation.”

And hard-line Israelis are similarly on the ascendant. Sharon, who will face caretaker Premier Barak in a Feb. 6 election, is so far ahead in the polls that, in the words of one commentator, it would take a miracle and a revolution to save the sitting prime minister.

“There is no solution which is acceptable to the Palestinians,” Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a leader of Sharon’s Likud Party, said last week. “This is the most important lesson of the recent developments. No solution is possible.”

The situation may even be worse than that. Janet Aviad, a veteran founder of Israel’s left-wing Peace Now movement, says that this year of negotiations, shooting and atrocities has laid bare the outlines of a settlement. Israel will have to return to something similar to its prewar 1967 borders, with a divided Jerusalem, a refugee solution that is not to the liking of the Palestinians and the evacuation of more than half of all Jewish settlements.

What will be fought over now are the details, she said.

“We know where we are going to be,” Aviad said. “The question is how many people are going to be killed for the last 5%.”


A Year of Reversals

May 24: Israeli troops complete a unilateral withdrawal from their “security zone” in southern Lebanon, ending a 22-year occupation and fulfilling a key campaign pledge by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.


July 5: When lower-level negotiations collapse after months of trying to hammer out disputed issues, President Clinton calls for a new summit involving himself, Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.


July 9: On the eve of the summit at Camp David, three of the parties in Barak’s coalition desert, along with his foreign minister. Barak leaves for Washington with a minority government.

July 25: The Camp David summit breaks up in disagreement, mainly over the fate of Jerusalem. Clinton praises Barak for taking brave steps for peace, while barely mentioning Arafat.


Sept. 10: Having earlier set Sept. 13 as the date it would declare an independent state, the Palestinian Central Council sets a new target of Nov. 15.


Sept. 25: Arafat and Barak meet to “break the ice” in their first working session since the breakdown of the Camp David talks.

Sept. 28: Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visits Jerusalem’s most contentious site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif, or “noble sanctuary.” Enraged Palestinians begin months of deadly clashes with Israeli forces, in what soon becomes known as the second intifada.

Sept. 30: A French television crew captures the shooting of a terrified 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Durra, as he cowers with his father during a gun battle between Israeli and Palestinian forces. The scene becomes one of the most incendiary of the conflict.


Oct. 12: Palestinians lynch two unarmed Israeli soldiers who blundered into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank city of Ramallah. Images of a battered body tossed from a window, and of a Palestinian waving bloodied hands in triumph, are beamed across the world.


Oct. 17: Clinton announces an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire after bringing together Arafat and Barak for an emergency summit in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. The truce is soon violated, however.


Oct. 22: A summit of Arab nations in Cairo excoriates Israel for the violence sweeping across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the conference turns aside radical demands that Arab states sever all ties with Israel and prepare for war.


Dec. 23: In Washington, Clinton offers negotiators from both sides a series of compromise proposals and asks whether they would be willing to use this framework as the basis for new negotiations.


Source: Staff and wire reports