Can peace be done in pieces?

Clinton departure gives negotiators time to reassess, but broad pact seems remote.

The overarching lesson of the week may be that a half century of hostility between Israel and the Palestinians can't be solved in nine days - even if negotiators stay up all night and President Clinton uses prodigious powers of persuasion.

But what's also become clear is that none of the parties wants the Mideast peace talks at Camp David to fail, and that, say observers, at least leaves the door open for progress on some of the region's most intractable problems.

"It's unrealistic to expect they can solve issues of this depth in a week. But once the issues are on the table people can stop chanting slogans and tackle them pragmatically," says Thomas Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum.

No one expects any breakthroughs while Mr. Clinton attends an economic summit in Japan. Yet he does have one advantage in being there: He can solicit other nations for the massive amounts of aid that will be necessary to support any Mideast deal.

At the same time, his departure from the marathon peace talks allows weary negotiators the opportunity to rest up, reassess, and perhaps work with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to draft agreements on progress made so far.

"This is reflective time, consultation time, draft time, and coming up with options time," says Shibley Telhami, author of a book on the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The big breakthroughs - if there are to be any - "can only be bridged by Clinton personally," he says.

For now, it seems the status of Jerusalem will not be settled, but the leaders are looking to bring home an agreement that will ensure some stability and prevent the violence that could erupt from the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state on Sept. 13.

Yet observers differ on whether a partial agreement would be politically sustainable.

A complicated puzzle

Even if a few pieces of the peace puzzle are matched up - for example, if some Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to Israel and receive compensation for lost homes - what Israel wants is peace, and that only comes with a final and complete agreement, says Bernard Reich, a Mideast specialist at George Washington University here.

Imagine, he says, settling the borders of a Palestinian state but not settling the most important border of all - Jerusalem, which both parties claim as their capital. "If you don't settle Jerusalem, how can you guarantee security? All of these issues depend on each other," says Mr. Reich. If you solve just a few of them, eventually, the "edifice" of peace will collapse, he says.

Yet from the negotiations so far, it seems clear that Mr. Arafat wants nothing less than sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which the Israelis captured in the 1967 Mideast war. This part of the city is extremely divisive, since it contains landmarks of deep import to Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Reportedly, Arafat firmly rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposal that the Palestinians have municipal control over Arab neighborhoods there, but Israelis maintain overall sovereignty.

"It seems very clear that there's absolutely no way any Palestinian leader can accept the standard Israeli position on Jerusalem - that it have sovereignty over the entire city," says Jerome Segal, a University of Maryland professor and author of the book, "Negotiating Jerusalem."

Still, this does not have to mean the end, say those observers who believe a partial agreement is not only doable, but sustainable - at least in the short term.

Telhami suggests a detailed agreement on how East Jerusalem would function under Palestinian control, but leaving the sovereignty question for later. "Postponement would be sellable to the Palestinians, but Israeli sovereignty would not," he says.

Joel Singer, former Israeli negotiator for the Oslo accords, also maintains that a partial agreement is better than no agreement.

Total collapse would throw into jeopardy all the agreements up to this point. It could mean the end of Barak's political career, and lead to Arafat declaring a Palestinian state.

Options on outcomes

If negotiators can make progress on every issue except Jerusalem, then the problem will evolve into "a single-issue dispute versus an existential dispute," says Mr. Singer.

From the US point of view, there is still the issue of who pays for the military support Israel will need to enforce an agreement, and the economic support the Palestinians are laying claim to (one estimate is $40 billion just for refugee compensation).

The Republican-controlled Congress is not in a giving mood when it comes to foreign aid, and this week, Senate majority leader Trent Lott said Congress would most likely only support military aid to Israel, adding that even $15 billion would be "way too high."

Still, analysts do not believe the aid question would make or break a deal.

What should not be assumed, however, is that a comprehensive deal is on the horizon.

"These are, in fundamental ways, the hardest peace issues I have ever dealt with," said a quiet Clinton, deep bags under his eyes, just before leaving for Japan early Thursday morning.

The peace process is a gradual one, says Mr. Smerling, "not a light switch that's on or off." Still, it's encouraging that over the past 50 years, "we've seen taboo after taboo fall."

After a few days of sober reflection, there's at least the opportunity for some more to fall as well.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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