In Mideast, vows to keep dealing

Palestinian, Israeli talks are on hold, but leaders are working to build support for a deal by a Sept. 13 deadline.

Driven by a shared interest in averting a conflagration, Palestinian and Israeli leaders appear anxious to renew contacts after their failed effort to reach a historic agreement at Camp David.

Back at home, the two sides depicted the summit as a setback in a prolonged process of diplomacy rather than the end of a seven-year peace process. The goals of talks might now have to be scaled down, but negotiations would continue, was the message conveyed.

"I think the two sides feel there is still a chance for negotiations," says Marwan Barghuthi, secretary-general of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank. "The summit failed, but that does not mean that it's the end of the negotiations. It is the end of this round, but not of the peace process."

That view was echoed yesterday by leaders of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's One Israel party though they were clearly concerned about the implications of the failure or Mr. Barak's future. "It became obvious at Camp David that we can't finish everything off at once, and it seems that we will have to find other means of pursuing peace through [more] interim agreements," Minister Haim Ramon told reporters "The peace process certainly did not die yesterday. Peace is inevitable. What can be avoided is war with its casualties."

Time left before Sept. 13

The statements point up a common interest that transcends Camp David. Both sides prefer that a Palestinian state emerge through agreement rather than a bloody confrontation with unpredictable results. Palestinian leaders have set Sept. 13 as the deadline for a statehood declaration, which according to the brinkmanship-driven negotiating culture of the region still leaves time for an agreement.

"I think things are headed towards another round of talks somewhere," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "This is not the end of the world. There will be a period of tension, but I don't expect any practical consequence of violence. I don't expect the parties will reach a final agreement by Sept. 13, but the two sides will realize how serious things are, and they will depart from their current attitude of striving for a full agreement. They will end up with something between nonagreement and a comprehensive agreement."

Mr. Barghuthi says that the absence of sufficient deadline pressure is one of the reasons the two sides did not reach agreement at Camp David, though the main reason in his view, was that Israel was not sufficiently forthcoming.

Still, there is a possibility that violence could erupt, especially given Fatah's proven ability to fill the streets with protesters, as it did during May clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian activists were scheduled yesterday to take to the streets in a show of support for Arafat, but leaders stressed that the marches were planned as peaceful ones. Israeli army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, made clear that his troops were under orders to steer clear of unnecessary confrontations.

"We believe it is possible to prevent an escalation in the territories," Mr. Mofaz told state-run Israel Radio. "We are doing everything we can to keep things calm, including passing messages to that effect to [Palestinian security forces]."

Arafat's credibility

Arafat's firm stand on Jerusalem earned him huge favor in an Arab world that deems the future of Jerusalem as a pan-Arab, pan-Islam issue.

"All Arafat's critics now have changed their minds. This was the only way to regain his credibility," says Fahmy Howeidy, a columnist who specializes in Islamic subjects for Egypt's semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo.

"He has lost many things over the years. But when he said 'no' [on Jerusalem], it was a change. He used to say 'yes, yes, yes,' " says Mr. Howeidy, noting that one popular pun circulating is that Arafat did not bring his wife to the talks "because they will pressure him to leave her as well.

"Howeidy expects violence such as riots, but no return to the intifadah, or "uprising," that in the 1980s led to daily street battles between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli soldiers that lasted seven years. "I think Arafat will not declare a state [as he vows by Sept. 13]," Howeidy adds. "Because he said 'no' on Jerusalem, he has some credibility to postpone or delay it."

The Arab press berated what it described as Israel's "baffling" accusations that Palestinian negotiators were "unreasonable" in their demands for sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. "Share" proposals, said an editorial in Amman's English- language Jordan Times, "are in fact the greatest self-indictment of a dirty Israeli conscience, since they reflect the Jewish state's acknowledgment that some concessions must be made to a legitimate owner."

"Notions of 'functional sovereignty' were also doomed to fail," the paper argued, because it "is a bit like being 'marginally pregnant.' You either are or you are not."

That view was echoed in Syria, which also demands a return of all of the Golan Heights - occupied by Israel in 1967 - before making peace with the Jewish state.

"Had Arafat bent any further, he would have lost not only his head, but the confidence of all the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at Syria's Damascus University.

"The question is not whether Israel will be kind enough to concede two meters here or there," he says. "Let's not overlook the fact that Israel is the aggressor, it occupied East Jerusalem, so it will have to pull back. This is a red line for every single Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim."

He predicts renewed violence. "It will be harder and harsher," Shukri adds, and "If the Palestinian police decide to join an intafadah, you will have not just stones and Molotov cocktails, but Kalashnikovs - and a civil war."

Perhaps the main question concerning continuation of the peace diplomacy is Barak's political future. Already weakened by the departure of coalition partners on the eve of Camp David, Barak's strategy of reaching an agreement and then calling new elections has now gone up in smoke. Several One Israel MP's spoke yesterday of a shift in emphasis from the peace process to domestic issues.

Barak, for his part, has contacted leaders of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, a proven problem for his government, in a bid to strike a new alliance with it. He finds himself caught between doves disappointed at the failure of Camp David and hawks criticizing him for offering unprecedented concessions on Jerusalem during the talks.

"Now that the effort failed and we know the real positions of the parties, the proper thing to do would be to go to elections and let the people decide," said opposition Likud party leader Ariel Sharon. "Now Barak will not be able to say that he is against dividing Jerusalem or the return of [Palestinian] refugees or giving up the Jordan Valley."

The most enduring legacy of the talks for Israel may be the shift that Barak engineered in the official position on Jerusalem. For the first time ever, Barak proposed handing over to Palestinian sovereignty Arab neighborhoods annexed in 1967, a move that fell far short of Palestinian aspirations in the walled old city, but was portrayed by the right as violating a national consensus on the city's unity. Barak also proposed that Jewish settlements near Jerusalem be annexed to Israel.

In defending the new approach, Barak departed from the traditional nationalist tenet that Jerusalem is the "eternal, undivided capital" of Israel. Instead, he said that the government is intent on safeguarding "the things sacred to Israel," an apparent reference to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, and the Jewish quarter of the Old City.

"We have seen an astonishing change in public opinion and a shattering of the stereotype that Jerusalem is united," says David Grossman, one of the country's leading authors. "It is still not enough, but Barak has started to make a distinction between the nuclear Jerusalem to which every Israeli feels an affinity and the larger "manipulative' Jerusalem to which we have no emotional affiliation."

*Scott Peterson contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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