JERUSALEM — Less than a month after their first summit meeting, the warm handshakes between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are rapidly melting into frustrated scowls as positions harden over the Wye River accord.
What is this agreement named after a river in Maryland? And why has it become central to the Mideast peacemaking process?
The pact was hammered out last October on the banks of the Wye River in Maryland. After nine days in a conference center, Israelis and Palestinians emerged with a deal. It was intended to break a 19-month impasse in Mideast peacemaking under then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Wye was heralded as a crucial steppingstone to lasting peace in the region.
But instead of paving the way, Wye has become a stumbling block - first when Mr. Netanyahu stopped implementing it, and now as the two sides debate when to hand over more land to the Palestinians.
To understand the role of the Wye River accord, one must back up a step to the Oslo accord.
Four years ago this September, Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed a wide-ranging peace deal that seemed logical enough: the Israelis would gradually get more security and peace of mind; the Palestinians, more land and liberty.
More specifically, the agreement provided for transfers of land, in several phases, from Israeli to Palestinian control. It outlined more freedom for the Palestinian economy and safer, easier movement for Palestinians between their lands. The agreement also included Palestinian pledges to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel.
This agreement, popularly known as the Oslo II accords, solved a few issues and laid blueprints for negotiating the rest. And it called for nebulous things known in diplomatese as CBMs - confidence-building measures.
But the rationale of incremental gains has proven more problematic than expected. As it nears its fourth birthday, the 314 pages of the agreement read like a controversial set of road maps that have become remarkably subject to each driver's interpretation.
The latest addendum to that agreement is the Wye River Memorandum. In it, the Palestinians were promised they would get soon what had been promised in 1995: three further transfers of Israeli troops from West Bank land occupied in 1967, the opening of a "safe passage" route between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the release of about 750 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the opening of a seaport in Gaza.
Israelis were also promised what they thought they were supposed to get the first time around. This time, they wanted specifics: evidence of the Palestinians' war on terrorist groups and detailed game plans for collecting illegal weapons.
Nuts and bolts
Much of the news related to Wye has focused on the land transfers in the West Bank. But as outlined above, the deal encompassed many other issues. What has been at stake in each of these?
*Palestinian prisoners. Israel held about 750 Palestinians who committed crimes before the 1993 peace accords. Mr. Netanyahu released about 250, but Palestinians objected because most of them were convicted of common crimes such as car theft - rather than crimes committed in the name of Palestinian nationalism.
*Safe passage. Many Palestinians are unable to reach school and family because current travel restrictions require them to obtain a permit to move between the West Bank and Gaza. Proposed "safe passage" routes between the two areas have concerned some Israelis, who fear that militants could use them to enter Israel illegally or commit terrorist attacks. Possible solutions have included an elevated highway between the West Bank and Gaza.
*Port of Gaza. Palestinians see a seaport as a vital means to improving their economy by smoothing the export and import of goods. Israelis are concerned that the port not be used to smuggle weapons into the Palestinian territories.
*Nature reserve. Of the West Bank land involved in transfers, a small portion was to be designated a nature reserve that would not be developed. Israelis see it as a sensitive area that, if developed by Palestinians, could endanger nearby Jewish areas.
*Verification and cooperation. Some sections of Wye were to formalize American and Israeli oversight of Palestinian commitments. The Palestinians agreed to devise a weapons collection program to be supervised by the United States, which American officials say did not occur. The Palestinians also promised to provide a list of police officers, because Israel has said that the Palestinians have more police than the agreement allows and that some of them are former militants. The list has not been provided, Israeli officials say. An Israeli-Palestinian committee that was set up to address Netanyahu's complaints of hostile propaganda against Israel has met only a few times.
*PLO Charter calling for Israel's destruction. Mr. Arafat agreed to convene members of the Palestine National Council to reaffirm their commitment to the peace process and declare sections of the Palestine Liberation's Organization's founding charter null and void. The meeting was held in the presence of President Clinton on Dec. 14, 1988.
The current snag
With the election of Barak, hopes rose of carrying forward the Wye deal. But problems have already surfaced, as Barak has asked Mr. Arafat to postpone gaining control of more land in the West Bank until they decide whose land will be whose in a permanent peace agreement.
Arafat, who agreed to consider Barak's proposal for two weeks, feels he must first get all of Wye's promises fulfilled before he moves forward. Palestinian officials are now calling the two weeks "a waste of time." Barak, having said he would move ahead with Wye if the Palestinians did not agree to his proposal, told his Cabinet on Sunday that he would aim to begin land handovers by Oct. 1.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society