US President Bill Clinton's hopes of brokering a last-minute, face-saving peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is hanging by a thread as he prepares to meet with PLO chief Yasser Arafat on Tuesday in Washington. In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak all but threw in the towel today, suspending all contacts with the Palestinians and tightening an IDF closure on PA areas following a terrorist car bombing in Netanyahu that wounded more than 50 civilians.
With little more than two weeks left in office, Clinton is rapidly running out of time to mediate a trophy peace agreement or even an end to the Palestinian uprising, which is proving to be an embarrassing close to his presidency. He hosts Arafat today at the White House for the 15th time during his 8-year term, by far more invitations than any other foreign leader.
The meeting was hastily arranged during a lengthy telephone call between the two on Sunday night. Speculation is that Clinton will deliver clarifications to over two dozen Palestinian objections to his "outline of principles" for concluding a framework accord before his watch is up. White House officials spoke of trying to reach a "common understanding" with Arafat about the parameters of the Clinton plan to advance negotiations quickly. But other reports have Clinton simply passing on American assurances about implementation of a peace plan in future.
Arafat spokesman Nabil Aburdeneh called Arafat's trip "a decisive visit at which the future of the peace process will be determined." Barak has given a conditional "yes" to the verbal American bridging proposals, but Arafat has refused to provide a definitive answer so far, saying he wants to first gain the approval of a special Arab League committee which is set to meet on Thursday.
Barak also spoke by phone with Clinton and reportedly expressed doubts over Arafat's intentions about reaching an agreement within the pressing time limits. He relayed his assessment Arafat would continue to stoke violence in an effort to internationalize the conflict. These were the same messages Barak sounded loud and clear today, in the aftermath of yet another terrorist bombing inside Israel last night.
"We are changing our policy," Barak stated today. "The chances that an agreement will be signed in the next few weeks are minimal." Barak gloomily predicted gloomily, "Since Arafat has wasted most of this time in dragging his feet... we have very serious doubts about the seriousness of his intentions to reach an arrangement."
Barak insisted he will not attend a possible three-way meeting with Clinton and Arafat unless all Palestinian violence ceases and full security cooperation against terrorism is resumed. In response to the car bombing in Netanya, Barak reversed plans to loosen an IDF blockade of Palestinian towns. Israel also closed the Gaza airport again, and shut down border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. In Gaza, Israeli soldiers closed three main thoroughfares Tuesday, effectively cutting the strip in half.
Barak's suddenly tougher line comes as most Israelis are balking at his acceptance of the Clinton plan, especially its proposed giveaway of the Temple Mount. With one month left until voters pick the next prime minister, Barak trails opposition Likud chairman Ariel Sharon by 20% in opinion surveys, and the Clinton plan is faring just as poorly.
Barak is now charging that Arafat and his Authority are encouraging anti-Israeli violence and terrorism, including the recent wave of attacks within Israel proper. A bus bombing last Thursday in downtown Tel Aviv injured 14 elderly Israelis.
On Monday, Barak told Israeli army commanders that if Arafat does not accept the US proposals, violence could escalate and the IDF would need to prepare for a regional conflict. Asked about that assessment on Tuesday, Barak admitted that "there is a greater possibility of a general deterioration, and the [IDF] general command needs to be ready." All contacts between Israel and the Palestinians have been cut off, Barak added. He again warned that Israel would have to move toward a unilateral separation from the Palestinians if the peace talks fail.
Before agreeing to the Washington trip, Arafat declared his people would keep resisting what he called Israeli aggression. "I say that our people are very strong and will continue their struggles and confrontations," Arafat said in Gaza.
On the heels of Clinton's intense lobbying effort, Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan reportedly urged Arafat to accept the plan, but now have become more sympathetic to the Palestinian reservations. The Egyptian leadership over the weekend agreed with Arafat's request for "maps, maps, maps," and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak co-signed a letter with Arafat asking Clinton for the requested "clarifications."
The PA has sent a letter to foreign envoys based in Jerusalem and the PA to explain why it could not accept the Clinton bridging proposal. The letter argues "that a general, vague agreement at this advanced stage of the peace process will be counterproductive. This conviction has resulted from our past experience with vague agreements and from Israel's history of non-compliance with signed agreements."
Among their numerous objections, the PA says it needs more details on how Palestinian areas in Judea/Samaria and Jerusalem will be linked. The letter adds that recognizing the right of return and allowing refugees the choice of return is a prerequisite to declaring an end to the conflict.
At the core of Clinton's proposals, Israel would surrender sovereignty over the Temple Mount in exchange for Palestinian renunciation of their hard-line demands for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. Arafat faces increasing demands at home to reject the proposals and not rein in the three-month uprising.
Barak is facing equally determined internal resistance on giving up control over the Temple Mount. At the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Barak held his options open, as always, by commissioning a team of dovish experts on Jerusalem to study ways to implement Clinton's proposals for dividing the city and its religious sites.
But over the weekend, he also repeated his new formula that he "do[es] not intend to sign any document that will transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians." One diplomatic source, however, said that Barak is using semantics to blur that he differentiates between what the Arabs call "Haram al-Sharif" (the Noble Sanctuary) above the Mount, and the portion below ground where the Jewish temple remains are buried. Barak added he would never recognize the right of return.
The Palestinians criticized Barak's remarks, saying they cast new doubt on prospects for returning to the bargaining table. Palestinian sources said they also view Barak as too weak to sign a peace deal, and that it might therefore be better to wait and negotiate with the new US administration and Israeli government. They said the intifada would continue until the Israeli public pressures its government to withdraw fully from Judea/Samaria, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.