For what was supposed to be a new era for the Middle East, the recent rituals have been all too familiar. As the deadline for another peace agreement approached, negotiations ground to a halt. The Israeli prime minister dug in his heels as his Palestinian counterpart made last-minute demands and shifted ground. U.S. pressure brought the two sides together, but the agreement was threatened almost immediately by terrorists. Worse, the agreement itself is little different from the Wye River accord grudgingly accepted by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year.
History is not repeating itself as farce in the Middle East, however. Real changes have taken place. Still, the temptation to revert to old habits will have to be fought tooth and nail as Arabs and Israelis work to establish an enduring peace.
The agreement signed earlier this week, dubbed “Wye 2,” builds on its predecessor. Under its provisions, Israel will release 350 political prisoners in two phases and turn over another 11 percent of land in the West Bank, eventually giving the Palestinian Authority control of 40 percent of the territory. As a sweetener, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised to turn over “quality” land, plots that would be more contiguous and more arable than those originally offered.
In return, the Palestinians will hand over lists of all its police forces, crack down on terrorists and collect weapons. Importantly for Mr. Barak, Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat also pledged that there would be no “unilateral change of status” — i.e., no declaration of Palestinian statehood — for one year. The agreement goes into effect later this week, when the first prisoner release is scheduled to occur. Shortly after, 7 percent of the land is to be turned over to the Palestinians. Significantly, the Israelis and the Palestinians also adopted a timetable for the completion of a “framework agreement” for the most contentious issues: the status of Jerusalem, the status of the Palestinian territory, the fate of the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian refugees. If the experience of the last few weeks is any indication, holding to that timetable is going to be difficult. The first and last are going to be the most difficult.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Barak has said that an undivided Jerusalem will always be Israel’s capital. Mr. Arafat has pledged that East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state. Given the city’s holy status for all Arabs and Muslims, it is unlikely that he can compromise on the issue.
Resolving the status of the 3.5 million Palestinians who fled the territory after the foundation of Israel will be no less difficult. Mr. Arafat has always claimed to speak for those refugees. Any retreat from his demand for an unchallenged right of return for them all will deal a strong blow to his authority.
The big question is whether the promise of Palestinian statehood will be enough of a sweetener for the Palestinian people. Mr. Arafat wants to be the founder of a Palestinian state. Seventy years old and reportedly ill, he knows that he must seize the moment if his dream is to be fulfilled. Mr. Barak knows that and will certainly use it as the final deadlines approach.
But making a deal with Mr. Arafat is not the same as reaching peace with the Palestinian people, as was made clear by the two car-bomb blasts that followed the approval of the accord by Israel’s Cabinet. Fortunately, the opponents of the peace were foiled; the bombs went off prematurely, killing only the perpetrators and averting what would have been a horrific terrorist act.
The identity of the bombers is not yet known, but suspicions have fallen on Arab Israelis. That Israeli police made arrests in the wake of the blasts means that the perpetrators could not have come from the West Bank, where the army is in charge of security. Here is where the change in the Middle East is most evident: Israeli leaders, while condemning the blast, were quick to avoid any blanket condemnation of Israel’s Arab citizens. Instead, as Mr. Barak said, they noted that “Israel’s Arabs are loyal citizens of this state who proved their loyalty in very tough tests.”
This change in the atmosphere is the most encouraging sign of a shift in the peace process. The participants are now looking for ways to make peace, rather than searching for ways to shirk their commitments. Mr. Barak has redeemed his campaign pledge to put the peace process back on track. He was not as successful in moving forward without U.S. assistance, but the goal is still admirable. With Mr. Arafat’s help, it is achievable.
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