In the modern Middle East's version of what map-carving colonial powers used to call the "Great Game," it's Yasser Arafat's move.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has presented the Palestinian leader with his proposal for putting relations back on a steady and secure road to peace. In their first working summit late Tuesday night at the Erez Crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Mr. Barak asked Mr. Arafat to agree to put off gaining control of more chunks of West Bank land until the two reach a comprehensive agreement that would settle all remaining issues in the century-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
In other words, Barak wants Arafat to agree to forfeit - albeit temporarily - what he was promised not just in the Wye River accord last October, but in the Hebron agreement nearly two years before that and in the Oslo II accord two years earlier. All three stipulated additional troop redeployments in the West Bank, the opening of a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and creating a seaport in Gaza, among other things.
Arafat, though opposed to any further delays, has agreed to mull over Barak's proposition. They will meet again in two weeks.
Barak says he will only postpone the timetable with the Palestinian leader's consent. So Arafat now has to weigh the consequences of placing trust anew in a potential peace partner against facing disdain from Palestinians who want tangible results.
"Barak is essentially telling him: 'Trust me,'" says Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus. That's a loaded request. A poll released by the West Bank think tank yesterday shows that 60 percent of Palestinians don't trust Barak's intentions, a 5 percent improvement from six weeks ago.
"Arafat thinks that this would tremendously weaken his own negotiating position, so he will not simply tell Barak, 'Go ahead, I trust you,' " Mr. Shikaki says. "Barak has to realize that the Wye accords were a compromise on a compromise on a compromise."
The impact of Israel's change in government in May has given Arafat other significant shifts to consider. Domestically, members of rejectionist factions of his Palestine Liberation Organization are nudging back toward the PLO umbrella. Several have agreed to meet with him in a development that could enable Arafat to show Palestinian unity. Such signs of reconciliation were under way amid reports that the Syrian government had asked the Damascus-based groups to forgo their armed struggle against Israel and concentrate on political activities.
Abroad, however, Arafat enjoyed a period of unprecedented warm relations with Washington during the three rocky years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Arafat was a guest at the White House more often than Netanyahu was," one Arafat aide boasts, but now worries that the sympathetic ears they found in the White House will be less open to his viewpoint with the arrival of a more dovish Israeli regime.
FOR Barak, there are compelling reasons not to implement any land redeployments now. The last two of the three-stage timetable requires Israel to turn an additional 11 percent of the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority. The troop withdrawals will leave about 15 Jewish settlements surrounded by Palestinian territory, making them accessible targets for Palestinian militants. Barak says it is better not to leave the door open for terrorist acts that might scuttle any progress, preferring instead to wait for a permanent deal so that the land transfers he has called "painful" can be made in one decisive step.
If Arafat doesn't subscribe to this theory, Barak may agree to move ahead on Wye implementation, but allow most issues to get bogged down in committees while he throws his energies into reaching a deal with Syria.
"The implicit threat behind [Barak's delay on Wye] is that if you really insist that I do it, I will, but there'll be a price to pay, and you may be left to sit high and dry for a while," says Mark Heller at Tel Aviv University.
Officials close to Barak say he is also proposing some changes to the agreement on the parts of the West Bank Israel will hand over to the Palestinians. Instead of withdrawing land in the Jordan Valley, he will propose giving up land in the northern West Bank that will allow Arafat more territorial contiguity. The Palestinians control most of eight West Bank cities and the Gaza Strip, and fear that they will be stuck with disconnected patches of territory that will stymie their aspirations of statehood.
"Barak's trying to get Arafat to change the map Netanyahu agreed on, and give less, but get more in terms of quality," says Mr. Heller.
Still, with the leaders seeming to recapture some of the spirit of cooperation that existed when Arafat first began making a deal with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, there is hope for an in-between formula that could give both sides some of what they want. A release of political prisoners, the easing of travel restrictions between the West Bank and Gaza, and one rather than two more redeployments are all ideas being floated.
With the expected kudos for Arafat when he brings rebellious PLO groups that opposed the peace accords back into the Palestinian fold, those measures might be enough to keep things humming while negotiators begin work on the final status talks.
"We feel the future negotiations need us all," says Mahmoud Ajrami, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the rejectionist groups.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society