Arafat’s Davos Speech Nixes Positive Election Spin Out of Taba
The week-long Taba peace talks concluded on Saturday with an upbeat assessment from Israeli negotiators – backed up by a joint statement with the Palestinians – that the two sides were “closer than ever” to a final agreement, and just needed a little more time to close the deal. But the thin facade of a looming breakthrough – aimed primarily at Israeli voters – was stripped away by Sunday, after PLO chief Yasser Arafat charged Israel with waging “a savage and barbaric war” against the Palestinians, prompting caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to cancel plans to meet Arafat in Sweden a week before the election.
When the marathon Taba talks broke up earlier than expected on Saturday night, the delegations held a joint press conference to dramatically roll out the mutual statement of “substantial progress.” Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told reporters it was the most “profound” discussions ever on a final-status accord, with advances on all issues. All that was needed, he assured, was a little more “quality political time” to sew up an agreement, which they planned to do right after the February 6 balloting in Israel. Ben-Ami added that a mid-week meeting between Barak and Arafat in Stockholm was in the works.
But Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei immediately began to undermine Ben-Ami’s claims of warm, fuzzy feelings and quantum leaps forward. Qurei cautioned that major gaps still exist, especially on refugees, Jerusalem and security arrangements. He insisted that future negotiations – whether with Barak or Likud leader Ariel Sharon, as polls show is more likely – must begin from the point where Taba broke off. When asked how the Palestinians would approach a Sharon victory, he threatened, “If he does not [continue negotiations], we have our ways to continue our struggle – through diplomatic means, political means, and all means to achieve our goals.
The comments undercut the Israeli peace team’s suggestion that an historic reconciliation loomed just around the corner if only Barak were re-elected. Sharon labeled the Taba statement a desperate campaign ploy, and reiterated he would not be bound by any understandings reached by the collapsing Barak government. He pledged, however, to honor any agreement ratified by a majority of 61 Knesset members.
Meanwhile, the Israeli media seemed to agree the Taba statement was a disguise targeted at a deeply skeptical electorate. A columnist in the left-leaning HA’ARETZ concluded that Barak sent a delegation of ultra-doves to obtain an “endorsement” of his candidacy from the Palestinian Authority, hoping it would wake up the peace camp and Israeli Arabs from their campaign slumber.
And indeed less than 24 hours after the Taba declaration was announced, the charade was over, as Arafat delivered a blistering anti-Israel speech yesterday at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland. Sharing the stage with dovish Israeli minister Shimon Peres in front of an audience of the rich and powerful, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Arafat accused the Barak government of conducting a “savage and barbaric war, using fascist methods, against the Palestinians, and continuing with its policy of economic strangulation.”
He also insisted Israel recently had used shells tipped with depleted uranium against Palestinians, echoing charges brandied at NATO forces earlier this month in connection with cancer cases arising out of the Balkan conflict. The IDF later emphatically denied the accusation.
Peres was taken aback by Arafat’s hostile tone. “I must admit I came prepared for a wedding, not a divorce,” he said to applause. Peres insisted Israel’s crackdown was solely in self-defense and beseeched Arafat to accept that Israel remained committed to finding a lasting peace.
Peres’ very diplomatic response drew criticism from Jewish members of the audience, with noted Holocaust survivor and fellow Nobel laureate Elie Weisel saying he should have walked out in protest. But several in the illustrious crowd felt Peres had scored some points: “To think of such a man [Arafat] leading a state is truly frightening,” said one onlooker.
The two finally shook hands as the crowd of political and corporate leaders stood and cheered, but Arafat’s pointed barbs evidenced the frayed status of the peace talks. Only hours later, Arafat was at pains to reassure the world he was still in favor of continuing the peace process and wanted to meet Barak this week. But the damage had already been done.
Barak held his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday to review the Taba talks, and sounded upbeat about the results. But once he got wind of the Arafat diatribe in Davos, Barak’s office announced that he has decided to halt contacts with Arafat until after the election, thus dousing hopes of a Stockholm encounter on Wednesday under the auspices of the UN and European Union. Some in the Cabinet argued for keeping the appointment, but Barak’s office confirmed today that any pre-election face-to-face with Arafat has been ruled out because of the PLO leader’s “bellicose, inflammatory and intolerable” speech at Davos.
“After Arafat spoke in such a manner against the state of Israel … there isn’t any way we can hold this meeting,” senior Barak aide Danny Yatom told Army radio. However, contacts to improve security cooperation would continue.
Arafat held a private discussion with Annan today, and emerged protesting Barak’s decision to suspend contacts. “I am still committed to the peace process, and if it is necessary, I would agree to meet personally with Barak at any time,” he was quoted as saying on Israeli radio.
With the original Taba “spin” in tatters, Barak and associates have turned to emphasizing that the Palestinians, reportedly for the first time, have agreed to allow some Jewish settlers to remain in three small blocs near the Green Line (pre-1967 border). But Palestinian denials and counter claims are making it impossible to hide the truth that enormous differences remain on settlements, the location of borders, security arrangements, control over the Old City of Jerusalem, and the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian officials on Sunday seemed to almost relish the prospects of a Sharon triumph next week. Qureia said the Palestinians were planning “tough resistance” if Sharon wins and implements “a policy of aggression.” Qureia warned, “Nobody can frighten us or terrify us.”
Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub added that the Palestinian people would continue their uprising should Sharon refuse to negotiate a peace deal based on the understandings reached at Taba. And Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat went further, alleging that a Sharon victory would lead to a full-scale regional war.
NOTE: The full text of the joint statement issued at Taba on 27 January 2001 and of Arafat’s speech at Davos on January 28 2001 are available on the ICEJ Web site at .
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.