The Palestinian uprising is still raging and he may only head a caretaker government, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has decided to urgently re-engage the Palestinians in negotiating a peace agreement before the end of the Clinton Administration. While it is unclear if the apparent movement is serious, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat is in trouble with his people for agreeing to play along.
Barak and Arafat are sending negotiating teams to Washington this evening for intense discussions under American mediation to explore whether the on-going violence has moved either side closer to a deal. The Israelis will be led by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, while the Palestinian delegation will include Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan and senior negotiators Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo.
There are conflicting reports and assessments as to the real status of the peace process, with some saying Israeli concessions mean an accord is at hand and others calling it mere smoke and mirrors. Many Palestinians and the Israeli Opposition dismiss the developments as an election ploy, and even politicians on Barak's left flank say it is only meant to keep senior dove Shimon Peres out of the looming special election for the premiership. Anxious to know exactly what was going on, inquiring Cabinet ministers were told by Barak at yesterday's weekly session to give him their full support and don't ask questions.
As the death toll from the uprising has mounted, both Barak and Arafat have insisted negotiations could not resume until there was a substantial reduction in the violence. But Barak's position has slowly eroded and his decision to resign and force snap elections for prime minister only has increased his need for a swift deal to enhance his chances for returning to office.
And Arafat has never really had qualms about conducting talks in tandem with attacks to achieve his goals. He is anxious to find out whether the election heat and eleven weeks of Palestinian violence have softened up Barak any.
The third party in the equation, US President Bill Clinton, is also eager to give Mideast peacemaking one last shot before departing the White House, since he stands to be blamed for leaving the region in crisis. If all goes well, Clinton's aim is to make enough progress to justify a summit with Barak and Arafat after Christmas.
On Sunday, HA'ARETZ reported Barak is now ready to compromise further on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, in particular giving the PA full control over the Temple Mount, in exchange for Arafat's postponing claims on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Barak would also drop his demand the agreement include an "end of the conflict, end of all claims" provision. In addition, the Palestinians will be asked to consider taking 3% of Israeli lands in exchange for Israel annexing 5% of Judea/Samaria.
But today, the left-leaning Israli daily noted "a closer inspection of where the two sides stand on the substantive issues reveals that there are still considerable gaps, and the Palestinian leadership is highly skeptical about Barak's real intentions."
Labor Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Avraham Shochat both expressed optimism the framework of a final-status agreement can be wrapped up in the next few weeks. And in an interview with ARMY RADIO, Ben-Ami suggested the Temple Mount is again in play, since Israel no longer has de facto control there. "We need to find a solution for the Temple Mount... [L]et's look at things as they truly are - more than we are sovereign over the Temple Mount we are hostages of the Temple Mount. In the end, every day, every Friday it is the Palestinians who are praying there, not the Jews."
When asked by reporters yesterday if he indeed was ready to meet with Barak, Arafat said "If there is a need to, why not? But we have to prepare for this meeting." The comments came at a meeting with 10 leftist Israeli lawmakers who traveled to Gaza to urge an end to the violence and resumption of talks. Arafat directed most of his response at IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, who he accused of acting independently of the government and ordering hits on Palestinians.
Erekat was adamant that the Palestinians enter the talks "seeking a comprehensive agreement on all issues in accordance with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which means withdrawal to 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem."
There is stiff opposition among senior PA members and Arafat's Fatah movement to the renewal of talks. Two of Arafat's senior aides, Abu Allah and Nabil Sha'ath, are unhappy with their resumption, after boycotting contacts with Israeli negotiators over the past weeks. Arafat tried to convince them that he has nothing to lose and that the intifada is continuing, ISRAEL RADIO reports.
Fatah and the Islamic opposition groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also are applying a great deal of public pressure on Arafat not to return to the negotiations, or even to meet with Israeli representatives. The leaders of these groups have gained new strength on the streets, and on Monday jointly called for mass protests and strikes against the Washington talks. A leaflet by the umbrella of factions designated Friday a "Day of Rage and Escalation," said there should be no return to negotiations with Israel, and urged that the uprising in the territories continue.
Some are suggesting Marwan Barghouti, the top Fatah leader in the "West Bank," will defy Arafat if he calls for a cease-fire. "I do not believe that we can reach any agreement with Barak," Barghouti said Sunday. "He is not a peace partner but a partner for war." Should the PA order a stop to the intifada as a result of the resumption of talks, Fatah will refuse to obey, he said. Barghouti has insisted the goal of the uprising is to drive the Israeli presence out of the territories just as Hizb'Allah did in south Lebanon.
Perhaps in a move to appease opposition elements, Arafat ordered the release of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was arrested and jailed six months ago.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned yesterday that Arafat has no right to make any concessions on Jerusalem. "No one has the right to surrender rights concerning Jerusalem," Mubarak told parliament and government councilors. "The Palestinian leadership is not free to decide upon it because the matter concerns all Moslem and Christian peoples."
The Egyptian leader also criticized Israel for "turning the Palestinian areas into a big prison for unarmed people." A group of Egyptian members of parliament has submitted a bill calling for an end to the peace with Israel. The MPs would also institute an economic boycott of Israel.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.