For Peace in Middle East, Aim for Final Accord Now

On this one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right. A few weeks ago he suggested that, rather than continuing with the series of additional interim steps called for by the Oslo accords, it was time to move straight to final-status talks with the Palestinians.

The Clinton administration should endorse this idea. Indeed, given the dangers so evident now in any continuation of Oslo's gradualism, Washington should move swiftly not only to resume but also to conclude the final-status talks on this track.

Two months is surely a generous time-span for this goal. (In 1978, the final-status accords between Israel and Egypt were concluded in a mere 12 days.) Implementation of a final-status accord can, of course, take place in stages - but this time the nature of the final goal would be known.

Aiming directly for the final-status accord would mark a break with long diplomatic tradition for Washington as well as for Israel. For decades, officials in both countries have argued that, especially on the Palestinian track, the matters to be decided in a final-status accord are so contentious that only a lengthy period of building "confidence" between the parties could lay the groundwork for entering the final talks.

This is an interesting theory - but given the political realities of the Middle East, it has proven counterproductive in practice. With the end-point of the negotiation left undefined, people on both sides of the national divide have tended to fear the worst.

A terrorist bomb in downtown Tel Aviv? Too many Jewish Israelis suppose an all-out Palestinian attack will follow. New Israeli encroachments on the West Bank? Palestinian concerns about outright annexation soar. Meanwhile, by the very design of the gradualist approach, nothing has been spelled out between the leaders that could help allay such fears.

A 'confidence trick'

Instead of building confidence, it has been eroded. Too many people have come to fear that "confidence building" is a "confidence trick," designed to lure their nation into defeat.

Insistence on basic principles from the talks' American sponsor could have provided the steadiness needed to keep the talks on an even keel. But, especially under President Clinton, such an American hand has been absent. Time and again, the Clinton administration has simply repeated the irresponsible mantra that "it is up to the parties themselves to decide." No mention of the ever-necessary provisions of international law, the interests of fairness or prudence, or even the idea that the United States might have its own national interest in securing a stable outcome to this negotiation, which it does.

Washington's crucial role

It is time - past time - to turn this situation around. The Clinton administration should urge the Palestinians to join it in vigorously taking up Mr. Netanyahu's suggestion and working toward the rapid conclusion of a final-status accord based on the principles of international law.

A word of warning: This will only work if Washington comes to the table (as it did in the Israeli-Egyptian negotiation) with its own far-sighted ideas on the shape of the final outcome - and is prepared to argue vigorously against extremists on both sides in order to achieve this.

Such ideas should include large-scale Israeli withdrawals from most of the territories occupied in war, the establishment in those lands of a demilitarized but otherwise robust Palestinian entity (or "state"), a workable formula for equitable coexistence among the residents of Jerusalem, and decent satisfaction of the claims and needs of Palestinian refugees. All this, of course, with the ending of all forms of violence between the two peoples and assurances of their noninterference in each other's internal affairs.

The knowledge that such an outcome lies ahead would give Israelis (and Palestinians) a far greater sense of security than they have at present. With a final goal defined, the confidence that is now so clearly absent between them could start to be re-built. The majority of Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans who continue (despite the extremist rhetoric of some leaders) to support the idea of peace with the Palestinians could surely be persuaded - through the exercise of wise presidential leadership - to support this approach.

But if, despite all the warning signs, Clinton should fail to aim for a workable final accord at this time, the outlook is grim. The whole fragile edifice of Arab-Israeli peace is near to crumbling. Vital American interests - not the least of them a major world oil source for Europe and much of Asia - throughout the Middle East would undoubtedly be battered in the ensuing whirlwind.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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