Wye Deal: Less Hopeful Than It Seems

Behind all the hype about President Clinton "pulling all-nighters" in the quest for peace, last week's Wye Plantation talks fell far short of producing a convincing vision of a future of cooperation between the two peoples of the Holy Land.

Instead, the small-scale, long-overdue, interim deal struck there showed yet again that distrust between Israelis and Palestinians, and between their leaders, has increased rather than decreased in recent years.

Any prospect of a stable, long-term peace between them still seems far away.

The problem of the Wye deal, and the broader Oslo peace process of which it is a tiny part, is still that the final destination of the process remains deliberately vague. With no clear picture of the final destination, each community still remains marked by deep distrust and fear of the other. Any little incident comes to be seen as a sign of the other side's evil intent, rather than an unfortunate blip on the broader road to peace. (In contrast, in the Israeli-Egyptian agreement reached 20 years ago at Camp David, the two sides agreed precisely on the final status - along with methods by which it was to be phased in.)

Vagueness about the end-point has been a longstanding Israeli preference with respect to the Palestinians. Behind this veil of ambiguity, successive Israeli governments have moved more than 300,000 Jewish settlers into Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. If Israel had annexed the territories outright, it would have had to face the disquieting challenge of giving the areas' 2 million Palestinians equal rights and equal protections under the law. By not annexing, Israel has felt able to ride roughshod over any Palestinian claims.

But so long as the former Labor Party Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were in power, there was still some hope that they could work with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to find an end point acceptable to most Israelis and most Palestinians.

But Rabin was killed by an Israeli fanatic, and in 1996, Mr. Peres lost his reelection bid to the present premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu brought to the conduct of Israel's relations with neighbors an arrogance and a single-minded pursuit of Israeli domination in the West Bank that have increased tensions throughout the whole Middle East.

His belated acquiescence to the latest plan, which will pull Israeli troops out of an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, does not alter that broader picture.

Even after the new pullback, Israel will still have total control of East Jerusalem and 60 percent of the rest of the West Bank, and "security control" of a further 21.8 percent. Israeli-controlled roads, many of them newly built or under construction, will continue to crisscross the area, fencing off the scores of tiny Palestinian "leopard spots" into easily-contained cantonments.

Mr. Arafat and his supporters speak boldly of declaring a Palestinian "state" in the areas they hold, if talks on the final status fail to produce agreement before the May 4, 1999 deadline. Such failure is entirely expected.

But Arafat's talk about a state means little: Given the situation on the ground, it would enjoy less control over its own destiny than the old South African bantustans.

Meanwhile, Arafat, Jordan's King Hussein, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and a number of other longtime Arab leaders all face growing medical curtailments on their ability to act. Israel's Labor Party has lost influence under lackluster leader Ehud Barak. And Netanyahu continues to parade his power to outmaneuver the US president.

The next five years will be a period of huge transitions in the Middle East.

Three million Palestinian refugees - whose longstanding claims have never been addressed - are scattered throughout the region.

Israel has turned its back on peace with Syria. Saddam Hussein remains in power.

You might think that, in the these circumstances, an American president would deal with Mideast peacemaking as something more serious than an opportunity to provide a scenic backdrop for a tough election campaign.

But Mr. Clinton has not done that.

"Peace in our time?" Most Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical of the true value of the Wye deal.

They are right to be so.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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