The Middle East peace talks brokered by US President Clinton have gotten a last minute reprieve. After two meetings with Mr. Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has given his qualified acceptance of the US proposals for peace.
The move comes at a time when the talks seemed moribund, and both sides had hardened their positions after a slew of anti-Israeli attacks and reprisals against Palestinian leaders.
The next move will be up to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is counting on a peace deal to save his political career. Both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat will have to face opposition to a peace deal from within their own camps. And even if the two sides do find common ground, it's uncertain whether the Israeli or Palestinian publics would even support a deal at this point.
The US plan is meant as a basis for further talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and not as a final agreement. But with only 16 days left in Clinton's term, there will be considerable time pressure if the two sides are to hammer out their differences before he leaves office.
Arafat has reportedly agreed to spend 12 of those days in negotiation with Israel. If those talks don't lead to a successful deal, it won't mean a permanent end to peace negotiations, say analysts who argue that warm or cold, historical momentum makes peace inevitable.
For now, though, it is a small victory for all involved that the two sides could return to the negotiating table.
"Things have been so grim lately, and sad, that I think people will be grateful for any kind of hope, and this news provides that," says Danny Ben Simon, a columnist and political analyst for the newspaper Ha'aretz. "I don't know if [continued talks] will result in a peace deal, but if Barak and Arafat keep talking, if these two shake hands, it would be such a message of appeasement to both sides."
There have been few conciliatory messages between the two sides of late. A coalition of Palestinian groups, including Arafat's Fatah faction, released a statement yesterday rejecting the US proposals as one-sided and confirming their commitment to continuing and escalating the intifada. Since the uprising began in late September, some 350 have died, most of them Palestinians.
Among the Israeli leadership, the mood was especially grim. Barak had taken a much tougher stance toward the Palestinians. His senior officials had accused Arafat of encouraging the recent wave of violence against Israeli civilians. And they had charged that the Palestinian leader's aim in meeting with Clinton was not to clarify points, but to establish the basis for negotiations with the next US administration.
"In this evolutionary process, any stage that you reach is a stage for continuation," explains analyst Avraham Tamir, a former Israeli army general who is not part of the current administration. "It's not like you finish with Clinton, you finish with the plan."
Arafat reportedly had several concerns in this set of talks with Clinton. They centered on the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel remains a thorny issue, as does the shape that the future Palestinian state would take.
For his part, Clinton raised the issue of security, asking for Arafat's cooperation in fighting violence and finding those responsible for attacks.
This is a particularly sensitive issue for Israelis right now. While the peace talks stumbled along this past week, two incidents left Israelis tense and upset. A shooting on New Year's Eve, which killed a radical right-wing rabbi and his wife and injured five of their children, drew large protest rallies that degenerated into violence. And though no one was killed, a New Year's day bombing in the city of Netanya left at least 54 injured.
This kind of violence may sour Israelis on a peace deal right now, says Gerald Steinberg, director of the program on conflict management and negotiation at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. Israelis have heard Palestinian promises to halt violence in the past - most recently at the Sharm el-Sheik summit in Egypt - and often haven't seen results, says Mr. Steinberg.
"There will be a great deal of skepticism on the part of Israelis," about any peace that might come from the current talks, Steinberg says. "They've been on the [peace process] roller coaster from 1993 until now, they were very enthusiastic about the promises of Oslo, including the renouncing of terrorism in many ways. But then they lived through the waves of terrorism in 1994, 1995, a big one in 1996, and now this last three months. Some people will say, I don't believe it."
It may also be hard for Barak to shift gears and return to the negotiating table. In the past few days, the Israeli prime minister has taken a tack toward a much more forceful stance. Most strikingly, he asked the army to prepare for the possibility of war in the event that the current conflict widens, a request that has been widely criticized.
It remains to be seen if Barak will reverse any of these moves. But given Israeli distrust and alienation right now, taking a tough stand may be his only hope of staying politically afloat, even with the Palestinians' acceptance of the US plan. A stronger stance would appeal to an angry Israeli public and might help him outflank Ariel Sharon, his right-wing opponent in the prime ministerial election set for Feb. 6.
It would also send a clear message to Arafat that he will have to back up his promises about halting the violence with real results. In the past week, Barak has closed off the territories, tightened the restrictions on movement within and between Palestinian cities, and forbidden Palestinian leaders from entering Israel. He has also reportedly ordered the army widen its list of potential targets to include Palestinian Authority officials directly involved in attacks against Israel. Several local Palestinian leaders have been assassinated over the last few weeks after acts of violence against Israelis. The new directive would mean more senior officials will now be considered legitimate targets.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society