As talks restart in US, terms have changed

Representatives of Barak and Arafat will meet with US envoy in Washington today.

After more than two months of violent confrontation, the Israelis and the Palestinians are on the verge of resuming full-scale peace negotiations. Teams from the two sides will meet separately with US officials in Washington today.

In a conflict as long and intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian one, any return to the table is good news. But any sense of relief comes with a bitter corollary: This resumption of negotiations shows that - however reprehensible - violence has worked.

Bloodletting for tactical advantage is certainly nothing new in this part of the Middle East. Since the early part of the 20th century, Arabs and Jews have used bombs and guns to gain leverage, if not peace.

Just over 11 weeks after it began, more than 330 people have been killed in the current Palestinian uprising, or intifada. The vast majority have been Palestinian. Early on, after the first month, Palestinians were asking aloud just what they would receive in exchange in exchange for their "martyrs."

Judging from accounts in the Israeli media, the answer is sovereignty over more land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than the Israelis were prepared to cede before the intifada.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also may be offering a new proposal for how to resolve the future of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital and where sites sacred to each side lie one atop the other in a way that seems to defy delineations of sovereignty. Peace negotiations this summer broke down in part because of disagreements over Jerusalem.

"Of course violence works," says Mark Heller, a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "Barak has to be very careful that he doesn't expose himself to [the] accusation" that he is capitulating to the Palestinians. "But he has to walk a very fine line."

That is because Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has to show his constituents that any deal worked out with the Israelis is the fruit of the sacrifices of the intifada. "He has to say, 'This is a victory for the intifada; we didn't get this handed to us on a silver platter by the Israelis,' " Mr. Heller says.

Analysts on the Palestinian side are much less inclined to characterize any new softness in the Israeli position as a victory for violence. They do not deny, on the other hand, that their bargaining position has improved over the past two months.

And they are gratified that the Israelis are now eager to discuss substantive issues, having abandoned their insistence that the street confrontations stop before the two sides return to the peace table.

For one thing, Palestinians argue that Israelis have been the more brutal of the two parties. Palestinian violence is generally a matter of young men, backed up by gunmen, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops. The daily routine of such encounters is occasionally punctuated by bombing attacks directed at Israeli settlers and troops in the Palestinian territories or at civilians in Israel.

Israeli violence is at least one order of magnitude more severe, featuring the use of tank artillery, helicopter-borne missiles, and the summary execution of Palestinians deemed responsible for attacks on Israel.

The back and forth can go on without end, but it bears noting that the Israelis are typically responding to attack. Then again, the Palestinians have lived under a day-to-day Israeli military occupation that they assert is itself a sort of latent violence.

A well-connected Palestinian political scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity agrees that the Israelis are putting forward "Camp David plus," a reference to a failed set of talks held at the US presidential retreat in July. "It' s also Camp David minus," he adds, in that Israelis are also demanding some Palestinian trade-offs in exchange.

But the bottom line seems to be that the Israelis are willing to make concessions they were unwilling to countenance several months ago. Even so, this shift isn't necessarily the result of violence, the Palestinian says. "It's more than that - it's the political squeeze that works, and Barak has been squeezed."

For reasons ranging from his questionable political skills to the deterioration in relations with the Palestinians, Barak has been forced to resign, meaning that Israelis will go to the polls early next year, either to choose a prime minister alone or to choose a new parliament and a prime minister.

Most political observers in Israel say Barak must produce some sort of peace deal with the Palestinians if he is to convince voters to keep him in power.

The other, more pressing element in the squeeze is the departure from office of President Clinton on Jan. 20. Regardless of the new administration's policies in the Middle East, its members will not be able to muster quickly the experience and commitment that Mr. Clinton has brought to peacemaking in the region.

On Sunday, Mr. Arafat met with a delegation of Israeli parliamentarians, part of the public-relations push that is accompanying the return to the negotiating table. This meeting notwithstanding, the Palestinians in general have been sounding much more skeptical about the likelihood of success this time around than Barak's negotiators.

Uri Savir, a former leading Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians, was part of the delegation and came away upbeat - in a low-key way - about the prospects for a peace deal. "I think it's doable. The positions are quite clear, and the gaps are quite clear. It's make or break, not just because of Clinton, but because of the situation on the ground," Mr. Savir says.

He denies any Israeli capitulation. "What can solve" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he adds, "is a creative package deal in which both sides offer more.... There are signs of flexibility on both sides."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.