The new agreement between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian ‘president’ Yassir Arafat, signed at Sharm al-Shaikh, near Alexandria, on September 5, was widely greeted as a new start to the ‘peace process’ that had appeared on the verge of stalling during the premiership of Benyamin Netanyahu. Few commentators admitted that it was merely a revision of the Wye agreement signed by Netanyahu and Arafat almost a year ago. However, the details of the revision and the process by which it was reached are telling.
As usual, the Israelis indulged in brinkmanship in order to wring last-minute concessions from the Palestinians. The deal was supposed to be ready for signing on September 2, when US secretary of state Madeleine Albright arrived in Alexandria. However, Barak refused to arrive on schedule, instead saying that he would arrive the next day for talks. His message was blunt: unless the Palestinians made further concessions, Israel would throw out the results of all recent negotiations, and revert to implementing the Wye agreement without modification.
This was a position of rare duplicity and audacity for two reasons: firstly, it was Israel and not the Palestinians who had insisted on revising the Wye agreement; the Palestinians’ original demand had been precisely that Wye should be implemented as agreed. And secondly, it was the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who had made all the concessions during the last few weeks of talks since Barak’s election. However, Barak’s implication that it was the Palestinians who had been obstructing the progress of the peace process, and that Israel was running out of patience, was widely accepted.
The details of the Wye agreement, and the revised version signed now, are worth reviewing. The main terms of the Wye agreement were as follows: Israel agreed to ‘relinquish control’ of a further 13 percent of the West Bank over the next 90 days; to transfer 14.2 percent of the West Bank from joint Israeli-Palestinian control to Palestinian control; to establish a safe passage for the free movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Ghazzah; to permit the opening of a Palestinian airport and seaport in Ghazzah; and to release 750 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
In return, Arafat agreed to eliminate anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian Covenant; stepped-up action against the Islamic movement with the help of the CIA; accept a reduction in the amount of land which may potentially become part of the ‘Palestinian state’ to a theoretical maximum of 40 percent of the West Bank (down from 90 percent ‘agreed’ in the Oslo accords of 1993); set aside a tenth of this land as a ‘nature reserve’ on which no Palestinian building or settlement will be permitted; and permit Israel to build and maintain control over new highways linking zionist settlements in the West Bank to ‘Israel proper’, which will effectively divide the ‘Palestinian’ territory into slivers of land divided by Israeli-controlled roads.
The Wye agreement, signed on October 23, was widely greeted as a triumph of diplomacy and a ‘last chance’ for the ‘peace process’. It was also greeted by a frenzy of settlement activity, as zionists rushed - with government encouragement - to occupy as much of the West Bank as possible before its terms were implemented. Even so, the agreement’s implementation was suspended by Netanyahu in December. By this time, just 2 percent of land had been transferred, and an airport opened in Ghazzah with much Palestinian fanfare.
The Palestinians, for their part, immediately stepped up their pursuit of Islamic movement activists, with the assistance of the CIA as promised. They also changed the Palestinian Covenant as demanded by Israel. The points of principle that they conceded, on the total amount of land to be transferred, and the conditions of the transfer, are of course irreversible.
Netanyahu’s suspension of the Wye agreement was regarded as a death-blow to the ‘peace process’. His subsequent defeat, and Barak’s victory, in Israel’s general election were welcomed, even by Israel’s friends, as ‘giving peace a chance’. Barak, we were told, was a man whom the Arabs could trust - a man of his word, a man they could do business with. He promised a new peace-deal within eight weeks of taking power, and that is what he delivered. But the nature of the deal exposes him.
Had Barak really regretted Netanyahu’s dishonesty, he could have reversed some of Netan-yahu’s revisions of previous agreements, and implemented earlier promises which Netanyhau had broken. Expecting that, however, would have been naive. But Barak could have been cooperative in implementing the Wye agreement, negotiated and signed by Netanyahu and then repudiated. Instead Barak insisted on re-negotiating it yet again, extracting further concessions from the Palestinians in return for fulfilling promises already made.
The main issue revolved around the release of Palestinian prisoners. At Wye, Israel had promised to release 750 prisoners, which Arafat understood to mean political prisoners. Instead, Netanyahu proposed to release only a smaller number of Palestinians, many of them criminals approaching the end of their sentences. Israel, Barak said firmly, could not release Palestinians with blood on their hands, and negotiations were re-opened. Finally, a figure of 400 was agreed, with the definition of ‘political’ deliberately left vague. Barak’s last-minute brinkmanship earlier this month forced Arafat to accept a further reduction to 350.
The agreement was ratified by both the Israeli and the Palestinian cabinets the next week, and the first round of prisoner-releases began on September 9, ahead of schedule. The formal transfer of land began the next day. Again, the Israelis appear anxious to give the impression of being co-operative and moving faster than necessary. The rest of the prisoners are due to be released on October 8, with further land transfers scheduled over the next year, to run concurrently with ‘final status’ talks on Palestinian statehood, scheduled to be completed by September 2000.
Numerous schedules have been set and broken before, of course. However, it is possible that the ‘peace process’ may proceed relatively quickly now, culminating in Arafat’s taking over a Palestinian state more or less on schedule. The last eight years of diplomacy, since the Madrid Arab-Israeli summit of 1991, have changed the nature of the deal from the ‘land for peace’ utopia set out at the time (and maintained ever since) to one altogether more acceptable to Israel: the establishment of a Palestinian ‘bantustan’ with minimal self-rule, over which Israel will effectively exercise total control without the costs - particularly in lives - involved in maintaining security against an angry Palestinian population.
At some stage, Israel and Washington will decide that the benefits of further politicking are outweighed by the risks of delaying a conclusion of the deal, and will move to wrap the process up with the formalization of Palestinian ‘statehood’ under the presidency of Yassir Arafat. That stage may now come relatively quickly.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999