Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel visited Washington this week. He sought United States support for his proposal to accelerate "final status" talks with the Palestinians, possibly via a Camp David-style summit. It is fair to ask whether such a proposal is likely to bring a genuine resolution of the complex series of problems dividing Jew and Arab. The obstacles to a successful outcome are formidable.
The Oslo agreement that formed the basis of the peace process between the previous Israeli Labor government and the Palestinians was based on the premise that, as each step was successfully implemented, the mutual trust essential to any discussion of the final status issues could be created. As the process moved forward, it was also hoped that Syria might ultimately be brought into the negotiations.
The Camp David talks climaxed many weeks of preparation and benefitted from the confidence established by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic trip to Jerusalem. A pressured, accelerated discussion between Israelis and Palestinians now, however, would take place in an atmosphere of extreme distrust. Friendly Arabs - Egypt and Jordan, important counselors to the Palestinians - have lost confidence in Netanyahu. Current developments are unlikely to induce Syria to change its position.
Palestinians see Jewish settlement construction, the carving up of the West Bank through bypass roads, and new Jewish housing in Jerusalem as efforts by the Israeli government to create facts on the ground that will make negotiations meaningless. They suspect that the plan to speed up talks may be a way of avoiding further Israeli withdrawals. Doubting that Netanyahu really wants what Palestinians see as a reasonable agreement, the Arabs fear that he will present terms they cannot accept and then blame them for an impasse.
Netanyahu has not helped this crisis of confidence by steadfastly denying any link between his actions in Jerusalem and current Palestinian protests. He refuses to discuss or negotiate his unilateral actions and then criticizes the Palestinians for not talking out the issues. He presents a posture of callous indifference to the Palestinians' many frustrations: economic deprivation, uncertain employment, humiliating travel restrictions.
Against this background, any accelerated talks would immediately encounter two problems: preconditions and an agenda. Netanyahu, while asserting there should be no preconditions, would demand that Arafat agree to end terrorism. The Palestinian leader may well wish to do so, but can he? Recent suicide bombings and other acts of terror clearly do not serve the Palestinian cause. The incidents have permitted the Israelis, with American support, to change the focus from longer-range issues. In the Israeli and US views now, any concessions to the Palestinians would be an unacceptable response to violence.
Arafat is likely to insist that, before any agreement to final status talks, the Har Homa housing project in East Jerusalem must be stopped. Netanyahu has said he will not do so, whatever the pressures.
If these obstacles could be surmounted, the next question would be an agenda. Palestinians would insist that the three core subjects of settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem be addressed. Could the Netanyahu government agree to discuss these issues without qualifications? Could the Israelis discuss Jerusalem other than on the basis of the city's remaining the undivided capital of Israel? Could settlements be discussed without opening the question of closing some of the most provocative? Could Palestinian refugees be discussed without considering the return of at least some from the camps?
The Oslo agreement recognized how difficult resolution of these final issues would be. They could only be approached if the two sides were able to set aside history and emotions to find imaginative solutions. This required the experience of working together, step by step, through what it was possible to achieve.
Netanyahu would clearly like to end the matter, one way or the other. Arafat becomes each day more vulnerable to challenges from Arab opponents of the process. What has he to show?
An accelerated process may be the answer, but, if it is, the careful preparation of Camp David and the degree of confidence envisioned at Oslo must be established. Few signs exist that either process is under way.
* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.