Bush Speaks, and Israel Stumbles


WITH the shake-up in the Israeli government, the already-slow pace of the Middle East peace process will likely grind even slower. Months of phone calls, letters, and meetings on multi-point plans have resulted in mere inches of progress toward ending the Palestinian uprising in Israel's occupied territories. Eastern Europe has been transformed by revolution while Israel and the US have been unable to agree on how peace talks will be held, much less what will occur once they open.

``We need action. We've done a lot of talking,'' Secretary of State James Baker III told Congress recently.

Yet President Bush may have inadvertently slowed negotiations further by bringing up East Jerusalem's future last week. This is a touchy subject in Israel, and Bush's comments threw fuel on the already-fiery Israeli peace process debate. The Likud-Labor coalition government has now split apart, and peace talks could go on hold for months.

Bush ``threw a wrench in the works,'' complains Barry Rubin, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If the peace process does dissolve it would be a frustrating end to something toward which US officials from President Bush on down have devoted extensive effort. In much of the rest of the world the Bush administration simply stood and watched as peaceful revolution swept through. The Middle East is perhaps the only region where the US is currently involved in traditional, slog-it-out diplomacy.

At issue is a framework proposed by Secretary Baker for ending the Palestinian unrest now roiling the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Baker wants Israel to agree to talks in Cairo with Palestinian representatives chosen by US-Israeli-Egyptian consultation. These talks would lay the groundwork for elections in the occupied territories, which in turn would produce a Palestinian leadership with the mandate to negotiate West Bank and Gaza Strip self-rule.

The Labor Party half of Israel's coalition government supports the Baker plan. The Likud half has hedged and backpedaled. On March 11, in the latest of a long string of Israeli Cabinet confrontations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud allies said they would not agree to the US formula unless there were further guarantees the PLO would not be involved, and unless Arab residents of East Jerusalem were not allowed to participate in the negotiating process.

``East Jerusalem'' may be words on which the whole process founders. On March 3, President Bush, in what may or may not have been an offhand comment, named East Jerusalem along with the West Bank as an occupied territory which should be closed to settlement by the Soviet Jews now flooding into Israel.

The US has never officially recognized Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, which was captured from Jordan in 1967. But while US officials have condemned Israeli settlement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they have mostly been mum on the subject of similar East Jerusalem settlements.

Israelis from both sides of the political spectrum support settlement in East Jerusalem. When President Bush appeared to criticize it, he set off a storm of protest and recrimination which polarized attitudes about the US peace proposal itself. Great tension over the peace process already existed between Labor and Likud.

The Israeli government collapsed Tuesday, when Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir fired Labor Party Vice Premier Shimon Peres at the start of a Cabinet meeting in which Labor intended to demand a firm response to the US peace proposal.

In Israel many commentators were blaming President Bush for emphasizing the East Jerusalem issue and getting everyone upset at just the wrong time. In the US some analysts countered that East Jerusalem was a problem that had to be faced at some point, anyway.

``It's been a killer issue for some time,'' says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

Some formula might have been found to shoehorn East Jerusalem Arabs into initial peace negotiations, Mr. Quandt says. But at some point the Israelis would have had to face the question of whether they were going to allow the same sort of self-rule elections in East Jerusalem as in the West Bank and Gaza.

That is a concession no Israeli now appears ready to make. ``Therefore I find it implausible that Bush's comment was the crucial issue that threw this off-track,'' Quandt says.

President Bush has not altered or retracted his statement on East Jerusalem settlement. But this week administration officials soft-pedaled their impatience with the pace of Mideast peace. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday that while Secretary of State Baker has said the time to act is now, ``he did not define `now'.''

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