Outgoing US President Bill Clinton’s hasty drive to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by January 20 sputtered again on Thursday when Arab foreign ministers enshrined the Palestinian right of return as “sacred.” The decision reinforces PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s hard-line stand on an issue Clinton’s “outline” for peace requires him to compromise and calls into question Washington’s claim Arafat has said “yes” to the president’s plan.
With only two weeks left in office, Clinton hosted Arafat at the White House on Tuesday to discuss numerous Palestinian objections to his bridging proposals. In two sessions spanning over 3 hours, Arafat asked for clarifications on Clinton’s blueprint for a framework agreement and US assurances that it would be honored by Israel regardless of the results of the February 6 election of the next prime minister.
Afterwards, there was some confusion as to the actual results of the crucial meeting. The White House claimed Arafat had pledged once again to order a halt to Palestinian violence – a promise that even US officials scoffed they had heard before. The Clinton Administration also said the Palestinians had given qualified approval to their proposals. This version of events seemed accurate when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak immediately dispatched senior negotiator Gilad Sher to Washington for follow-up talks with the Clinton team.
Meanwhile Arafat remained mum and returned to the region for consultations today in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then foreign ministers comprising a special Arab League committee on the peace talks.
But this morning, Palestinian officials quoted in AL-AYYAM said Arafat would not give his final answer to Clinton’s proposals until after today’s Arab conclave in Cairo.
Arafat first wanted Arab League advice and backing for his decision, especially on the Clinton’s plan’s requirement that he surrender the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel in exchange for control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, whose state media has repeatedly denounced the US proposals in recent days, reportedly opened today’s meeting by saying the plan should not even be discussed. Instead, he called on the Arab League to concentrate on supporting the Palestinian uprising.
Other Arab foreign ministers on the committee, concerned with pressure from their streets to support the intifada, discussed the Clinton peace outline anyway, and later announced that they considered the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees as “sacred.”
Speaking as chairman of the meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said,”I would like to point out that Lebanon has totally rejected the idea of resettling the Palestinian refugees (permanently) and insisted on the right of the Palestinians to return. We believe that this is a sacred right.” Moussa told reporters the foreign ministers also were concerned the Palestinians had not been assured full sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the city’s Muslim holy sites. He could not say whether the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table.
Only once he returned to Gaza did Arafat publicly comment on developments, saying he still hoped a deal could be reached before Clinton left office. He is expected to give Clinton a clearer answer at any moment. However, Israeli commentators are saying the answer may sound like a “yes,” but it is only posturing since it comes too late and with too many conditions to be of any practical use for the time-pressed pair of Clinton and Barak. One diplomatic source said Arafat was only making “tactical” moves at this late stage in the game.
According to today’s article in AL-AYYAM – the mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority – Arafat told Clinton his plan was faulty on several key points. The PA would insist on the full implementation of United Nations Resolution 194 concerning the right of return for Palestinian refugees and would not agree to sign an “end of the conflict” clause until Israeli had fully implemented all aspects of a final agreement.
Arafat also reportedly told Clinton that a three-year implementation period was too long, he objected to the idea that Israel would be allowed to set up emergency warehouses in the Jordan Valley, and that he also had problems with Clinton’s ideas concerning Israeli control of the Western Wall.
The Barak government was already hinting that Arafat’s meeting with Clinton had failed to alter their feeling that a deal was unattainable before the president left office on January 20. Today, the Barak team was anxious to blame Arafat for “wasting time” and to douse “erroneous media reports” concerning the Sher mission to Washington.
In a press statement, Barak’s “peace cabinet” announced that Sher had been sent at Clinton’s request to prepare for the launch of trilateral discussions with senior Palestinian and American security officials on how to reduce the violence and prevent terrorism. CIA chief George Tenet, a mainstay in recent negotiations, will be deeply involved. The statement stressed that only after efforts aimed at ending the violence had shown success would Israel consider the prospect of working with the US to narrow the gaps in negotiations.
In a parallel press release, it was disclosed that Barak had sent a letter to Chief Rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron reiterating his position that he does not intend to sign any document which transfers sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. The statement assured Clinton, the PA and all those involved in the negotiations are aware of this position.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams may be meeting in Washington or the region next week to engage in talks on security issues, making it now appear highly unlikely that progress will be made towards a framework agreement under Clinton’s watch.
And today, even the PA’s delegate to the security talks, Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, cast doubts on whether the trilateral security apparatus will begin work as planned. Dahlan told PA radio that, despite Arafat’s commitment to Clinton on Tuesday, the Palestinians would not meet with their Israeli counterparts to renew security cooperation unless Israel was prepared to end the violence first.
Dahlan, a very close adviser to Arafat, said that the intifada was a separate issue to the negotiations and that Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militia heads would not extinguish the uprising. The Palestinian security forces, he said, were helping activists hide from Israeli forces.
A military leader in Arafat’s Fatah faction, Hussein Al-Sheik, affirmed that even if peace talks resumed and made serious progress, the Palestinians would persist with the intifada.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.