Despite Confrontation, Oslo Still Stands

Mideast peace process is propped up by cooperation between security forces

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The rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians has had more than its fair share of drama - secret negotiations at Oslo, the spectacle of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking the hand of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, and now the controversy over settlement construction at Jebel Abu Ghneim (Har Homa to Israelis).

But these dramatic snapshots can be misleading. A complete picture of the state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs requires an appreciation of the working relations between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Despite doomsday rhetoric coming from Gaza and Tel Aviv and almost daily clashes in Bethlehem and Hebron, Israeli and Palestinian security forces remain committed to the agreements that are the foundation of the Oslo process.

A well-ordered standoff

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In Bethlehem, daily demonstrations unfold almost according to a prearranged script. Palestinian youths approach the line dividing Palestinian Area B from the Israeli Area C. Members of the Palestinian police intervene only when the youths threaten to cross into Area C. Otherwise they fall back and let them throw stones at Israeli troops 50 meters distant. The Israeli troops do not charge into Palestinian-controlled Area A, which would be a challenge to the Oslo agreement. Rather, they fire tear gas grenades and occasional rubber bullets. Demonstrators don't advance, nor do they retreat. This relatively well-ordered standoff continues for hours.

Palestinian dissatisfaction with Benjamin Netanyahu's government is thus noted, but no "red lines" are crossed. And some hundreds of meters from the Bethlehem stand-off, bulldozers level the ground at Jebel Abu Ghneim in preparation for building some 6,500 dwelling units for Israelis.

Mr. Arafat, faced with the actions of an Israeli government he neither trusts nor fears, prefers to capitalize on Mr. Netanyahu's mistakes to isolate Israel internationally rather than risk losing control of the situation on the ground. Demonstrations under the control of local activists, who maintain disciplined "orders of engagement" with Israeli troops, complement this strategy.

Netanyahu's objectives, in contrast, are not as clear. Until now he has cooperated with Arafat in maintaining the low profile of West Bank demonstrations. The tanks are ready, but they have not been rolled out. Nor have Israeli soldiers made a practice of using live ammunition to suppress demonstrations. The "closure" imposed after three Israelis were killed in Tel Aviv along with a Palestinian suicide bomber is softer than those imposed by his predecessors. His suspension of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until a renewal of Israeli confidence in Arafat's security commitments is little different than the actions of former Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres.

Yet Netanyahu continues to shoot himself in the foot. According to Israeli and European diplomatic sources, he needlessly misled the Clinton administration about the extent of Israel's "further redeployment" on the West Bank announced earlier this month. Further, his proposals for "jumping" directly to talks about a final agreement with the Palestinians have only increased suspicion that he wants to bury the rapprochement with the Palestinians. It is difficult to conclude that Netanyahu himself is sincere about winning serious Palestinian and Arab consideration of this idea.

It will be remembered that Netanyahu's plan for "Lebanon first" had similar defects, and it met with resounding Arab opposition. His idea to scuttle the Oslo formula will probably meet a comparable fate. The Palestinians will not easily abandon a signed framework for negotiations and Israeli withdrawal in order to negotiate a new framework with an Israeli government they don't trust.

Netanyahu, however, does not want to bury Oslo. He, like his predecessors, views his relationship with Arafat as facilitating, not obstructing, the achievement of Israeli objectives in the occupied territories and beyond. Like his predecessors, he is prepared to offer the Palestinians no more than half of the West Bank in any final status agreement. Yet in contrast to Rabin and Peres, who won international praise far beyond what they deserved, he seems unable to claim credit for his allegiance to Oslo. Indeed, to judge by his rhetoric and the undisciplined statements of his ministers, it seems that he does not want to claim credit for it.

US will likely step in

The Clinton administration is likely once again to step into the breach and try to restore the Oslo process's waning vitality. The Palestinian commitment to act against those threatening Israeli security will be reaffirmed, and discussions about implementing Israel's first "further deployment" will begin. And the bulldozers will continue at Jebel Abu Ghneim.

Everything, of course, could blow up. However, it is clear that both Netanyahu and Arafat find the prospect of armed confrontation more discomforting than a resumption of their fractious dialogue.

* Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

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