Another shot at peace

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat prepare for a fresh round of peace negotiations. Will right wingers on both sides scuttle it?

AT the end of the first week of September, Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Yasser Arafat and Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were about to meet for discussions. But it would have taken a die-hard optimist to predict that this meeting would indeed take place, leave alone that it would produce anything. But the very fact that talk of a meeting was in the air showed that pronouncements on the death of the peace process were premature.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (right) with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Peres has signalled to Arafat that Israel would resume negotiations on substantive issues if an end to the violence could be worked out.-AP

Confusion over the certainty, time and venue of the meeting between Peres and Arafat persisted. As the prospects for the talks began to firm up, there was speculation that the two leaders could meet on the side-lines of a business conference in Italy on September 7. But Peres thought that the media focus at that venue would be too intense for talks that are bound to be extremely delicate. The Palestinians too held back, and while there was no clear statement from them it was speculated that they were awaiting the conclusion of a meeting of Arab leaders on September 9.

No decision had been taken in respect of the venue either. The Palestinians were talking about the possibility of holding the meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was reportedly not prepared to accept this suggestion. A meeting at Taba at this stage would, in his opinion, give the impression that there was a continuum with talks held at the same venue towards the end of last year. Those discussions at Taba had, by most accounts, produced almost the full contours of a final settlement which was, however, not considered binding since Israel was already into a prime ministerial election by then. Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister under whom Israel reached the agreement at Taba, had been ousted in those elections and Sharon had stated his disagreement with some of the specifics of the Taba deal. Therefore Sharon did not want to give the slightest chance for anyone to say that the Taba agreement was still valid. Sharon preferred a meeting at the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip but it was not clear whether the Palestinians would accept such a low-key venue for what they desire should be a high-power conference.

But the question remained whether the meeting would take place. The one thing that is predictable about West Asia is that the unthinkable can happen at any minute. On any given morning the leaders might decide to hold a meeting, but before it can take place there can be such an act of gross provocation by either side that the chances for a meeting could collapse by noon. Israel persists with its policy of targeted killing of Palestinians - variously described as interception operations or pin-point defensive measures - and Palestinian suicide bombers are still out in the field.

It is a measure of how much things have deteriorated in the 12 months of the Palestinian uprising that even the targeted killings or suicide bombings are not producing political effects to the same degree as earlier. Protest marches and fiery slogans still mark the funerals of those assassinated by Israel or killed by Palestinian bombers and snipers. But unless the death is of children or high-ranking political figures on the Palestinian side, or unless a large number of Israelis are killed in one single suicide mission, the leadership on either side is not as eager as they once were to state that they had reached the end of their tether.

Despite the condemnatory statements that flow from both directions - the stridency of which intensified as the conference against racism unfolded in Durban - the recognition of the need to resume the dialogue at some stage has not faded. Indeed, though both sides have so far only paid lip service to the concept, the realisation that there can be no military solution to the current impasse appears to be creeping up on the leadership on both sides.

Somewhat predictably, Sharon said he did not expect the Peres-Arafat meeting to result in an end to the violence even as he gave his Foreign Minister the go-ahead. To an extent Sharon was protecting his flanks against criticism from the Israeli Right that he was adopting the dangerous optimism of the peace camp. But Sharon's hawkish credentials are not in doubt. His statement that he did not expect an end to the violence because he believed that Arafat had a stake in armed conflict could as well have been a cover for his own determination to persist with the policy of targeted killings. Both sides know that they cannot afford to have international opinion irrevocably set against them, and the predictions about the likelihood of provocation from the other side constitute an insurance policy of sorts.

There might have also been a strong element of cynicism in Sharon's move. Peres has been routinely attacked by hard-liners in the Israeli Cabinet for persisting in his belief that a dialogue can be resumed. Sharon needs Peres in his Cabinet and he knows that Israel needs to show that it is interested in resuming the dialogue. Israel's Prime Minister could have been allowing his Foreign Minister to carry the ball while protecting himself from the prospect of losing it.

As is usual with Arafat, it was difficult to read the result he had aimed. Arafat needs a resumption of the dialogue, in which there will be some form of third party participation that will re-launch talks on substantive issues at an early date. He also wants a third party presence in the territories so that he can tell his people that he has brought them a measure of protection and achieved a position of equivalence with Israel in the eyes of the international community. But Arafat's energies hardly seemed focussed on these objectives as he continued with his frenetic tours of international capitals - including a bewildering visit to New Delhi and other Asian capitals.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He needs a resumption of the dialogue, in which there will be some form of third party participation that will re-launch talks on substantive issues at an early date.-ADEL HANA/AP

Arafat did send two of his most experienced and pragmatic negotiators, Ahmed Qorei (Abu Ala) and Saeb Eerekat, to meet with Peres at the beginning of September. It was after this meeting, arranged by the European Union's Javier Solana who was involved in a major shuttle operation, that both sides started talking of a Peres-Arafat dialogue. But by then, Arafat had missed a major opportunity to seize the initiative. He could have prepared for the meeting with Peres by stating that he was ready for a ceasefire since he had gained recognition for the principle that international observers should be posted to monitor a truce.

This opportunity came at the end of August when Israel temporarily re-captured the town of Beit Jala that has been under the full control of the P.A. for the past four years. Almost from the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, Palestinian gunmen had used Beit Jala as a staging post from which they directed fire into the settlement of Gilo on the fringes of Jerusalem. Israel, citing the need to protect the children of Gilo who would start the school year in September, sent in tanks and paratroopers to oust the gunmen. For nearly two days this town was the venue of a flurry of fire-fights between the gunmen and Israeli soldiers. European officials persuaded Arafat that he must stop his people from firing at Gilo and with his assurance they were able to persuade Israel to withdraw its troops.

It was not just the involvement of a third party in the negotiations that Arafat gained. (The substitution of European officials for those from the United States was in itself not an insignificant gain from the Palestinian perspective.) When Arafat sent his own security forces to block access to Beit Jala and to persuade the gunmen to withdraw, these European officials accompanied them. This was an opportunity for Arafat to declare that he had been right all along when he said that a ceasefire would be effective if third party observers were on the ground to monitor it. He could have seized the initiative to declare that he was ready for an all-round ceasefire that he would invite the Europeans to monitor.

Although Arafat let this opportunity slip by, the European officials believed that the Biet Jala episode had produced the kernel of an idea that could lead to an all-round ceasefire. Sharon is as yet not prepared to acknowledge publicly the need for third party observers, though Peres has openly said that he thought it was now necessary. Although the Europeans and Peres have not contradicted Sharon's approach, it did appear that a provision for third party monitoring would be built into any ceasefire agreement that Peres and Arafat might work out.

As the two sides began fairly intense preparations for an Arafat-Peres meeting, there were a few other semantic and substantive problems they had to sort out. Sharon's stance all along has been that he would begin any dialogue with the Palestinians only after they had observed a complete ceasefire for at least a week. Arafat, on the other hand, was not willing to enforce a ceasefire seriously unless he had the assurance that negotiations on substantive issues would resume immediately. Peres and the Europeans cleverly worked out a formula whereby they side-stepped Sharon's demand that the first stage must comprise a unilateral enforcement of the ceasefire by the Palestinians. Instead, both sides would negotiate their way to a ceasefire. While bringing the process of a dialogue up front they side-stepped Arafat's demand that the talks cover all issues and instead narrowed it down to an initial focus on the methodology for implementing a ceasefire.

By the end of the first week of September, Peres - as usual displaying his mastery of word-play - had worked out the language to be employed to frame the discussions. These talks would be held, he said, to "achieve a ceasefire with the goal of implementing the Mitchell and Tenet agreements". This was a roundabout way of saying that he and Arafat should work towards the implementation of a ceasefire while seamlessly moving on to consider plans (worked out by a former U.S. Senator and the chief of the Central Intelligence Agency). Since the Mitchell-Tenet plans lead up to a resumption of negotiations on substantive issues, this was a signal to Arafat from Peres that Israel would resume negotiations on substantive issues if an end to the violence could be worked out.

Whether Sharon will eventually allow his Foreign Minister to resume negotiations on substantive issues was a question that few people were prepared to ask, let alone answer, as the process for an Arafat-Peres meeting got under way. Sharon said that he will allow his Foreign Minister to negotiate terms that would allow an easing of the restrictions imposed on the movement of Palestinian people and goods in the territories. If the Peres-Arafat meeting does take place, and if it does lead to a reduction of the violence and an easing of the conditions in which the Palestinians currently live, it would be considered a substantial success.

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