The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks: Coming Full Circle

- Shebonti Ray-Dadwal

 

Introduction

Days after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu boasted that his government had kept its election promise of curbing terrorism, two blasts, detonated by suicide bombers in a crowded Jerusalem vegetable market, once again put the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which were showing signs of reviving after four months, in jeopardy. After weeks of intensive negotiations with both the Israelis and Palestinians by European Union (EU) envoy Miguel Moratinos and the Egyptians, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath had announced on July 28 that the talks would resume at the committee level and would seek to find mutually acceptable solutions to some sticky issues like the Gaza airport and seaport projects, safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the additional release of Palestinian prisoners. The mood was upbeat and the US Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, was scheduled to visit the region shortly to give a fillip to the talks.

The feel-good atmosphere was also in part due to an announcement by Israel's interior ministry that it had decided to formally announce a temporary halt to a project to build 70 Jewish homes in Ras al-Amud neighbourhood in east Jerusalem, which after the controversial Har Homa project was bound to create havoc in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu also said that he was ready to relinquish part of his dream for a greater Israel including the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that his goal now was to preserve for Israel the "essence" in a final settlement with the Palestinians, that is, the Jerusalem area, the Jordan River valley, blocs of large Jewish settlements and Jewish holy sites. "I am willing to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. I am willing to make adjustments in my dreams. It won't be easy. It's not easy." He also called for accelerated talks towards final status which both sides are supposed to reach by 1989.1

A day later the bombs destroyed any immediate chance of a resumption in talks. After the attack which left 15 dead plus over a hundred injured, the Israeli government clamped down yet again on the Palestinians, only this time their actions were even more harsh than before. Netanyahu laid the blame directly on the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's shoulders and accused Colonel Ghazi Jabali, commander of the West Bank and Gaza police force, of being directly involved in the attacks. Even before the bombs went off, Netanyahu had been claiming that the Palestinian police chief was personally involved in acts of terrorism against Israelis and was demanding action against them. Now, after calling off the peace talks and sealing off the borders between Israel and the Occupied Territories and arresting hundreds of Palestinians, he threatened to send Israeli troops back into those towns which had been handed over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the Oslo accords, and introduced a new form of punitive measures against the PA—he withheld reimbursement of taxes to the PA to the tune of $41 million which were to have been paid the day of the attack. The Palestinians reacted predictably with anger at this new form of punishment and called for non-cooperation and asked the international community for help. But in the first few days after the attack, it seemed that the bombers had managed to accomplish what they have been seeking to do since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993 - effectively killing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and eventually the entire peace process.

The Peace Process Under Netanyahu

Netanyahu came to power in June 1996 on a platform promising secure peace to an Israeli electorate furious at the toll a spate of devastating suicide bombings had taken. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a Jewish extremist, his successor Shimon Peres was considered too idealistic and dovish to deal with Palestinian militants, and even a more than necessary strong reaction to Lebanese Hizbollah militants who had been waging war in the north east of the country was not enough to get him elected as prime minister.

During a keenly contested election campaign, Netanyahu had made it clear that he was not really in favour of negotiating with the Palestinians, and considered Arafat to be a terrorist with whom he could not and would not do business. Neither has the Likud-led right-wing government which came to power been shy about indicating, time and again, that it is not particularly interested in paying a price for peace with the Arabs. Soon after Netanyahu's election in June 1996, Arab leaders convened a summit in Cairo, their first in six years, where they declared that they would reconsider the concessions that had ben made to Israel in the past years of peace talks if Israel tried to change the terms of reference for the negotiations. Their fears were based on a policy statement made by Netanyahu just before he took office, where he made it clear that he intended to abandon his predecessor, Shimon Peres,' policies, such as working towards the creation of the Palestinian state and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria which Israel had captured in the 1967 war. He also made it clear that an undivided Jerusalem would continue to be the capital of Israel, and in fact indicated that as far as he was concerned, the Palestinian aspect of the peace process had gone as far it ever would.2

By the time Netanyahu completed his 100 days in office, the "new West Asia" was beginning to look a lot like the old one before the signing of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord. The Palestinians were furious, Egypt was scathing in its criticism against the new government, the spectre of war with Syria was in the air, and urged by Syria, many Gulf states which had been moving towards normalising relations, were reassessing their positions vis-a-vis Israel. But what was perhaps more alarming was the fact that even ties with Jordan, one of the two Arab states which had signed a peace treaty with Israel and whose monarch was one of Netanyahu's staunchest supporters, were losing their warmth. Under these conditions, the Arab governments appealed to the US to ensure that Israel did not deviate from the principle of land for peace on which the entire Madrid process was based, but admitted that they were not optimistic that President Clinton in his election year would give priority to the peace process.3

For his part, Netanyahu, continued to insist that he intended to pursue peace with the Palestinians and other Arab states, albeit in a different mode from that of his predecessors. With regard to the Palestinians, he said his government would fulfill past commitment but only on a "reciprocal" basis, that is, when he felt sure that the PA was living up to its security commitments.4 But he refused to meet Arafat and concentrated on developing relations with Egypt and Jordan instead. Though the closure that had been imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip soon after the April-May 1996 bombings that cost Peres the elections were lifted partially, projects like expansion of settlements in the West Bank were announced, while the Jerusalem municipality continued to demolish illegally constructed Arab buildings, including a club for the disabled in the Old City which led to strong protests and demonstrations by Palestinians.5

By end-September, the government had reached a crisis point with the Palestinians when it decided to re-open a tunnel under the sacred Al Aqsa mosque, known as the Hasmonean tunnel, that had been closed, despite warnings from the Israeli security forces that the move would set off widespread disturbances. At the same time, talks on redeploying Israeli troops from Hebron as per the Oslo accords, were being delayed, thanks to the dilemma on the part of the Israeli government regarding the safety of the 450-500 Jewish settlers who were living in a Jewish enclave in the heart of the city, and whose security had to be ensured once the city was handed over to the PA. But these continuous delays were leading to a further build-up of frustration and bitterness on the part of Palestinians.

Things finally came to a head when Netanyahu disregarded the advice of his security advisors and announced the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel to the public. As feared, it led to widespread demonstrations which turned violent and spread quickly to many parts of the West Bank. As estimated 75 people, both Jews and Arabs—were killed and many more injured. The Israeli government blamed Arafat for inciting his people and accused the press of publishing "outrageously false reports" both about the archaeological tunnel and Israel's hard line stance in the peace talks.6 He said he was deeply disturbed that while Palestinian violations of the peace accords were being overlooked, Israeli delays over security were being attacked.

Soon after the violence died down, negotiators from both sides began talks to end the impasse over Hebron, thanks mainly to international and especially US pressure. Netanyahu acknowledged that he had come under harsh criticism from the Israeli media, doves and Arab leaders but insisted that adjustments on security matters within the framework of the peace accords would be necessary. He said that though he was committed to seeing the peace talks through to a successful conclusion, they would have to be on terms that would offer true peace and security to both sides and insisted that the Palestinians meet their commitments. He accused them of inciting violence, failure to collect illegal arms and disarm militant Palestinian groups and, most important, failure to amend those parts of the Palestinian Covenant which called for Israel's destruction.

Nevertheless, by January 15, despite a desperate bid by an Israeli soldier who opened fire on a group of unarmed Palestinians in a last ditch effort to stop the Hebron deployment, Israeli troops withdrew from 80 per cent of Hebron, leaving Israel in charge of 20 per cent of Hebron where 450 settlers lived. The two sides also reached an agreement whereby the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) would withdraw from other parts of the West Bank by mid-1998. Many analysts feel that it was the subject of "further redeployments" that was responsible for holding up the Hebron agreement for so long.

However, a difference of perception regarding the extent of further withdrawals that was to take place by 1998 still existed. According to Oslo II, Israel was to withdraw from the West Bank in three further phases (after Hebron) so that they would eventually be left in control of only Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and "specified military locations." The Palestinians believed they would have possession of at least 80 per cent of the West Bank under the redeployment scheme worked out with the help of the US and Jordan's King Hussein. However, Israeli officials were equally determined to concede as little territory as possible. It is in the interpretation of the "military locations" that the seeds of dichotomy lie. Given Israel's interest in holding on to as much territory as possible and the looseness of the phraseology, the Palestinians fear that at the end of the process they may find themselves in possession of little more than a few hundred West Bank villages and some adjoining land in the two phase pullout, despite the US "letters of assurance" which are intended to overcome Palestinian misgivings in this regard.

Palestinian fears were justified soon enough, when Netanyahu announced the first deployment plan from the West Bank in which another 9 per cent of the West Bank would be handed over to the PA. Of the 9 per cent that was to be handed over 7 per cent was already under joint Israeli Palestinian rule while only 2 per cent was under exclusive Israeli rule. Not surprisingly, Arafat turned down the plan and cut off all negotiations with Israel. Instead, he invited the US, EU members and Arab envoys to a meeting to discuss the "crisis" situation.8

Israel's Settlement Policy

Besides the terrorism factor, the issue which had caused some of the biggest crises in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations is the one related to land confiscation and settlements. US and Arab diplomats were worried that once a Hebron deal was made, Netanyahu would announce plans for settlement expansion in order to placate his right-wing coalition partners who were opposed to the pullout. But though the US made it clear that it was averse to Israel's settlement policy, and despite warnings that Israel should not take Clinton's objections over settlements lightly, as he may retaliate by withholding aid to Israel, the government in mid-December decided to give settlement in the West Bank national priority, i.e. settlers were given incentives like generous tax breaks and subsidies for moving beyond the Green Line. The Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai tried to justify the government's policy by saying that the intention was to strengthen existing settlements and to increase them only where they thought it was necessary, while Netanyahu's senior advisor David Bar-Ilan said that while Israel did not plan to requisition lands or engage in massive building activity, they would however "try to rectify the discrimination against settlements since 1992."9

Though President Clinton had repeatedly proved his friendship for Israel, and much of Israel's success in dealing with the US bureaucracy including the Pentagon during the last few years has been thanks to the perception that Israel was a Clinton favourite and must be accommodated, he attacked Israel on its settlement policy. Nicholas Burns, State Deptartment spokesman, said the Likud's policy on settlements was "not useful and not constructive. It's not going to help the (peace) process." He also alluded to reports of Israel's plans to expand settlements on the Golan Heights, saying that, "Settlements are a complicating factor in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the other tracks. And we hold to that view."10

In May, Netanyahu rejected a US government survey that found that many of the homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were vacant, and promised more construction and government aid despite US critisism. The survey had found that 26 per cent of the homes in West Bank settlements and 56 per cent of those in Gaza Strip stand empty, suggesting that there was no real need for new buildings to accommodate natural population growth as Israel was claiming. Netanyahu rejected the report as "false" but in an unusually blunt statement, the US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, blamed the breakdown in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians not only on Islamist terror attacks but also on unilateral Israeli acts like construction on disputed lands.11

In February, the peace talks were once more plunged into crisis after the Israeli cabinet announced that it had approved plans to build 6,500 homes for Jewish families on the 160 acres of the district of Har Homa in East Jerusalem. The area was conquered by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, when it was part of the West Bank but it was soon incorporated into the expanded borders of Jerusalem which Israel annexed. Har Homa or Jebel abu Ghneim, as it is known by the Arabs, seals the only gap in the "outer wall" of Jewish suburbs erected around Arab East Jerusalem over the past 30 years.

Netanyahu insists that the project, which was originally approved by the Labour government but later halted after a storm of protest, was approved for the sole purpose of providing housing for the increasing Jewish population in the disputed holy city, and said that he had also approved plans to build 3,015 Arab homes in other parts of the town. But critics say that Israel's true motive is to complete the isolation of Jerusalem from the West Bank to pre-empt final status negotiations which were scheduled to resume soon. Even the Europeans, Americans and Jordanians were sceptical about Israel's motives and Jordan's Crown Prince Hasan even cancelled a visit to Israel in protest. Israeli commentators too questioned whether the Arab housing would ever be built and the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz pointed out that while plans for Arab housing had been sanctioned, the Palestinians who would get public money for infrastructure would have to trek through bureaucratic red tape before they could start construction. Comments by Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, also did nothing to alleviate the suspicions of Palestinians. During a TV interview, he said, "the Palestinians want to divide Jerusalem. It is not a matter of rights. They have no rights here, they never had rights here."

Following the announcement of the Har Homa project, Palestinian Minister Faisal Husseini warned of riots comparable to those in September, while Palestinian negotiator Saib Erekat warned that Israeli officials' actions and pronouncements would only serve to shatter the peace process. His warning was echoed by Ami Ayalon, head of Shin Bet, who warned that Arafat may not be able to restrain his own people once work began on Har Homa.12

The Palestinians took the matter to the UN but with the US standing staunchly behind Israel, the Security Council's verdict was a foregone conclusion. On March 21, the US, along with Costa Rica, vetoed a resolution against construction in Har Homa, making it the second time in a month that the US blocked Security Council action on the issue, on the contention that Israel and the Palestinians should work out their problems outside of the UN. Though later the UN General Assemby overwhelmingly approved a resolution, condemning Israel's "illegal" settlement polices and called for symbolic punitive measure (the original text of the resolution which called for broader economic sanctions was watered down) and urged all states to stop "all forms of assistance and support for illegal Israeli activities" notably in building settlements in Arab areas, the resolution was not binding. However, it gave the Israeli government two months to comply with the demand to halt the construction or face further action by the UN. Though the resolution lacked teeth, the Palestinians were delighted as "this is the first time the international community has taken a decision clearly condemning Israel and creating a mechanism for moving against its settlement policy." Israel understandably rejected the resolution and said it amounted to interference in the peace process, and David Peleg, Israel's UN ambassador, said the session was unnecessary and that as three-fourths of East Jerusalem's land belonged to the Jews, construction would not be halted.13

Arafat too unleashed his publicity machine and tried to rally Arab and international support to stop the project. At the 12th ministerial meeting of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in New Delhi, Arafat made a surprise appearance, and appealed to the members to back the demand for an extraordinary session on the peace process. He spoke about Israel's "flagrant violations" of the peace accords and said it appeared to have rejected the "land for peace" formula. He took special exception to the proposed Israeli migrations in East Jerusalem and stressed that the Oslo accords forbade any alteration of the status quo in the disputed city which could only be specially brought on the negotiating table later. His statements were echoed by the other non-aligned states, while his address was later adopted as an official document of the NAM. Other key fora like the OAU, OIC and the Arab summits also condemned Israel's actions, and said that the push towards new areas by Israel was a deliberate attempt to "judaise" Jerusalem and was part of a bigger design to undermine the raison d'etre for Pal statehood through demographic alterations.14

Meanwhile details of a secret contingency plan by Israel's Housing Ministry to construct another 400,000 homes for Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were published on June 9 in Yediot Aharanot with details of the document entitled "The Territories—Overall Planning". It was said to be used as a contingency plan in case the peace process was stopped. The outlined construction would more than triple the existing homes, estimated at 40,000 in the existing 144 Jewish settlements in the territories where the Palestinians were hoping to create an independent state. On the same day Ha'aretz said that a compromise deal was being considered in which Israel would go on building in Har Homa but at "a slow pace close to stoppage."15

Around this time Netanyahu, speaking publicly of his ideas of a permanent settlement for the first time, said that Israel must keep all of Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank in a final peace settlement with the Palestinians. At the same time, he reiterated his opposition to Palestinian goals of establishing a full fledged state. According to a map published by Ha'aretz, the premier was considering offering the PA only 40 per cent of the West Bank in a final settlement. Though the "Palestinian entity" would control much of the West Bank's heartland, its area would be divided into several zones lacking in territorial contiguity. Netanyahu also said he would seek to retain control of Jewish settlements in what he termed "blocs", i.e. he would consider dismantling only those small and isolated settlements which were deep in Arab-populated territory.16

Netanyahu denied that he had approved any map and said that the map had originally been prepared by the Army to show Israeli interests in the West Bank. But there was by now no doubt in the Palestinian minds that the Israeli government's position had changed drastically since the interim agreement signed in Oslo in 1995 which would have effectively ended Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank.

However, contrasting reports were also published by the media that the government was considering compromises on the Har Homa and other building projects prompting right wingers, who have come together under a Land of Israel grouping, to threaten Netanyahu with dire consequences if the government changed its settlement policy. At the same time Netanyahu is being pressured by the US, Egypt, and the EU to call a halt in construction activity, albeit temporarily, to enable resumption of talks. Besieged by corruption charges and at the receiving end from his party colleagues and coalition partners for breach of promises, Netanyahu has been trying to walk a tightrope, promising his right wing supporters that Israel would not cave in to US or Arab pressure to compromise on security issues or on Jerusalem, while agreeing to resume negotiations with the PA.17

The Economic Weapon

Though closures have been a favourite form of punishing the Palestinians for any act of alleged non-compliance of the Oslo accords, after the Mahaneh Yehuda bombing, the Israeli government imposed a new form of punitive measure—that of witholding tax returns to the PA. According to a top Palestinian official, Israel's economic and security siege was costing the Palestinians $9 million a day.18 Despite international outcry and pleas by the EU representative Miguel Moratinos to restore tax revenues to the PA, the Finance Minister Ya'acov Neeman said that Israel had no intention of resuming financial transfers to the PA while "serious violation of bilateral agreements continue unabated." Of the $814 million the PA plans to take in as part of its 1997 budget, $513 million was to come from the reimbursements from Israel. Each month Israel transfers to Palestinian accounts a sum that includes all of the customs duties, value added taxes, fuel excise taxes, health taxes and 65 per cent of the income taxes collected by Israel from the Palestinians. As thousands of Palestinians work in Israel, and even those who don't work, buy goods produced in or imported via Israel, the sum of money collected by Israel is large.19

The decision will mean that 60 per cent of all PA funding will be cut off. On an average, every month Israel transfers 115 million shekels (120 million in customs and VAT payments, together with 40 million shekels in petroleum excise receipts) to the PA. However, vital services like security and health will be funded to some extent from other sources.20

Other punitive measures have also been imposed on the Palestinians, with the government's blessings. The Israel builders' association declared a permanent ban on hiring Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The decision to ban Palestinian construction workers is going to hit the industry hard. While there is a need for 230,000 workers, at present there are only 140,000-150,000 Israeli workers with up to 40,000 foreign workers, 20,000 licenced Palestinian workers and an estimated 30,000 Palestinians without permits.

According to Palestinian and UN estimates, the annual cost of a prolonged closure will cost the PA $1,825-$2,555 billion. Unemployment in Gaza is currently running at 40 per cent according to PECDAR figures with a 31 per cent jobless total in the West Bank. The territories have seen a 25 per cent drop in GDP since January 1996 with a per capita income down from $1800 to $1000 in the West Bank between January 1996 and March 1997. Of some 110,000 Palestinian workers in Israel before the closure, some 65,000 had work permits. But the PA says that only 35,000 were legally allowed to enter Israel, with others entering illegally as the closure was never fully lifted.21

The cutoff in revenue is effectively a cancellation of the 1994 Paris protocol, which laid the framework for economic cooperation between Israel and the PA. Therefore, it is seen as even more significant than the loss on funding, according to PA officials. The PA is now examining alternative courses of action like stepping up foreign trade via Egypt and Jordan.

Palestinians say that the present closure is more rigid than previous ones, preventing not only the entry of Palestinian workers into Israel but also thousands of villagers from getting work in PA-controlled towns. As a result many factories in Palestinian towns are functioning at a lower level than usual and many shops remain closed.22

Israel's security heads warned Netanyahu that such tough measures against the PA would weaken Arafat and produce further instability. They warned that closure of the territories would lead to rapid economic deterioration and witholding taxes collected from Palestinian workers in Israel could have a devastating effect, for without the taxes Arafat would be unable to pay the salaries of the 75,000 policemen and other officials employed by the PA and the consequence would be the collapse of the PA's bureaucracy.23

Many human rights organisations also agree that the present measures are more harsh than previous ones and even Israeli officials admit that by witholding tax revenues, Israel is violating the peace accords under which it is obliged to transfer all but a small portion of the nearly $500 million it collects each year from Palestinians who work or buy goods in Israel. But they doubted whether they would improve Israel's security. For one, no one is sure whether the attack was initiated from PA-controlled areas or from Israel-controlled ones and Arafat even hinted that the Lebanon-based Hizbollah was behind the bombing. By collectively punishing the Palestinian people, Israel was only succeeding in strengthening the Islamists' hands and increasing their support base, and by alienating the PA and threatening the peace talks, it was only playing into the hands of those who were against the peace process.

The US tried to persuade the Israelis to reverse the decision and warned that halting the flow of funds could have the opposite effect to the one intended by Israel, which is to push Arafat and his forces to step up the battle against terrorism. Netanyahu has said that some, and eventually all the payments will be restored, if and when Arafat adopts a harder line towards the militants. But till they do so they will be subject to the same kinds of draconian economic sanctions that the US imposes on countries like Libya, Iran and Iraq.

Arab Reaction to Netanyahu Government

With the Oslo process gaining momentum there had been signs that many of the moderate Arab regimes were ready to mend fences with Israel, provided the Israeli-Palestinian track to the peace process showed some progress. Soon after the Declaration of Principles was signed, Morocco, Qatar and Oman showed positive signs of moving towards normalisation of relations with Israel. But after the Har Homa project was announced followed by the punitive steps adopted towards the Palestinians collectively after the Jerusalem bombing, these countries have decided to slow down the pace of normalisation.

After the Har Homa announcement, the Arab League passed a resolution calling for member states to stop dealing with Israel, close missions and bureaux, desist from participating in multilateral talks of the peace process and continue the boycott against Israel so as to "punish" Israel for its controversial decision. Even important US allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Egypt which has already signed a peace treaty with Israel, have been party to the decision and have been active in the deliberations in which the recommendations were adopted. Jordan too has suspended talks with Israel on some new joint projects like building an airport as a first sign of cooling relations between the two countries,and a day after the Arab League resolution, Jordanian officials informed their Israeli counterparts that they were postponing talks without giving any plausible reason.24

Qatar, which opened a trade office in Israel, announced that it was prepared to act on the Arab League recommendations while Oman which was one of the first Arab states to establish contact with Israel in the 1980 and operates a quasi-diplomatic office in Israel, said that it would freeze ties with Israel and that "contacts would remain frozen until we feel that the Israeli government adheres to what will satisfy our Palestinian brother...then we will review the possibility of resuming official contacts with the Israeli government."25

Though even at the height of the Labour government's peacemaking efforts Egypt was blasting Israel (on the NPT issue) and both Labour Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had their share of problems with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, they never had to face the kind of challenges from all sides as Netanyahu is now facing. While internally, Netanyahu is facing charges of corruption and has to deal with flak from within his own coalition from senior ministers like Ariel Sharon, externally, the more hostile Arab regimes like Libya and Syria are openly calling Israel the "Zionist enemy". Syrian and Egyptian media attacks on Netanyahu have increased, some even warning him of war.

Even moderate leaders like Morocco's King Hassan has ordered his government to freeze relations with Israel followed by Qatar and Tunisia. Arab regimes have also loosened their ban on street demonstrations. In Cairo, authorities have allowed anti-Israel marches after Friday mosque prayers which had hitherto been prevented.

Privately, Arab leaders acknowledge that Netanyahu is proceeding with the peace process, but they complain that his strident style is too blunt and that he says things that are perceived to be hostile to the Arabs in general, and to the Palestinians in particular, and in fact accuse him of a lack of commitment in his approach to the Palestinian issue. "If Israel cannot be committed to the Palestinians, then what worth will be his commitments to the rest of the Arab world?" they ask. "Palestine is an eternal wound in the Arab body. Whatever happens in Jerusalem echoes in Amman, Salt, Irbid, Beirut and Baghdad."26

Even Jordan has been swept up in hostile attitude. Arab diplomats and analysts say that King Hussein, who personally likes Netanyahu and who welcomed his election in June, has decided that it is better to join the anti-Israel bashers rather than confront them.

Netanyahu, they say, is no match for Arafat. After the tunnel opening, an unpopular Arafat managed to recover his mantle of leadership among the Palestinians and win political and financial support from most of the international community as he confronted the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Nabil Shaath, "At the outset of the crisis, we didn't have a penny. Our hospitals were without medicine. In these difficult days we received $50 million."27

Privately, Israeli government analysts admit that the situation has gone beyond their worst scenarios. Syria is lobbying hard to prevent Israel from being invited to any forthcoming conferences in the Arab world, including the Middle East Economic Conference in Qatar. In some cases Israel has been asked to attend as part of a European delegation, which they have refused. Though no ongoing pojects have been cancelled, nothing new has been added.28

Many in Israel feel, however that the Arab threats are merely bluster-there are no signs that the Arabs, including Syria, are preparing for war, and that the Arabs are still intimidated by the superior Israeli military strength. Nevertheless, most Arab diplomats expect the anti-Netanyahu campaign to continue as they divert attention from the unpopular Arab regimes, most of which are plagued by failing economies and rising Islamic extremism. But the long-term goal is to topple him or force him to form a national unity government with Labour.29

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the mission of the suicide bombers on July 30, besides killing as many Jews as possible, was to deliver a crippling, if not fatal, blow to the peace process, and they very nearly succeeded. Though Dennis Ross may have succeeded in getting the two sides to resume security talks, Israel's insistence that the PA stamps out terrorism in the Occupied Territories before lifting punitive measures on the Palestinian people as a whole may yet prove to be debilitating to the peace process. Neither does the threat of Israeli security forces reentering PA-controlled areas to seek out the terrorists, should Arafat fail, help to create cooperation. And should the Israeli-Palestinian process fail, it is bound to bring clouds of war over the entire region.

It is equally true that Netanyahu is today, perhaps, a victim of his own election rhetoric as he is of his coalition partners, and supporters radical position. Many Israeli scholars and politicians feel that Israel should not give in to Palestinian demands on crucial issues that affect national security, like safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an airport or a seaport at Gaza, despite US pressure to make the concessions. They believe that if the government gave in to these demands, it would be impossible to monitor movements of people and goods that would result from these projects to the advantage of extremists. Neither do they believe the PA when it says that Islamic extremism will diminish if the PA gets what it wants.

For its part, government acts like passing of the Golan bill in the Knesset and punitive economic steps against the Palestinians only enhance the feelings of bitterness against Israel. On July 23, the Knesset passed a bill, which, if implemented, would require at least 80 votes in the 120-seat Knesset before any teritorial concessions could be made on the Golan Heights. The purpose of the bill is to make any territorial concessions on the Golan Heights impossible, without which any peace with Syria is impossible. Though Netanyahu, who voted for the bill, said that "strengthening the law on the Golan Heights does not undermine negotiations with Syria," Foreign Minister David Levy said that the proposed legislature would only strengthen the hands of those elements who question Israel's intentions for peace. Though Netanyahu later said that he would change the law from 80 legislators to 61, the damage was already done.30

Many Israeli commentators say that the Premier's biggest problem is his inability to show that he has been following a definite policy. For example, during the election campaign Netanyahu had railed against the terms of the Oslo accord, denouncing Arafat and opposing Hebron redeployment. But once he took office, he realised that there was no alternative to Oslo, and that a meeting with Arafat was unavoidable. But even today he displays the utmost reluctance to accept the Palestinian leader as a partner, accusing him of inciting his people against Israel and being directly involved in terrorist acts, and thereby creating an impression that in dealing with the Palestinians, or for that matter, with the Syrians or Egyptians or any matter pertaining to the peace process, he is being pressured into reacting to the inevitable rather than taking command of a situation.31

That Israel has benefitted from the peace process and the subsequent normalisation of relations with some of its neighbours is obvious to anyone walking the streets of Tel Aviv or any modern Israeli city. The peace process has also succeeded in diminishing the power of the Arab boycott and thereby contributing to the tremendous economic growth of the country. But it is equally obvious that, barring a few officials, most of them ex-exiles, the peace process has brought few dividends for the Palestinians. The Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories are caught in a Catch 22 situation. While those Palestinians who live in Israeli-controlled areas say there has been no improvement in their standard of living, those living in areas controlled by the PA complain of living under a police state, as it were, with the freedom they had all looked forward to being a myth. While PA officials enjoy extravagant lifestyles, the majority live under squalid conditions, with no freedom of speech or press and living under the constant threat of arrest by Palestinian police.32

Today, despite four years into the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, there is more bitterness and cynicism amongst the people regarding the peace process. While mutual trust has been completely eroded by the cycle of terrorist attacks followed by closures which further damage the Palestinian economy, the only positive aspect of the process is the fact that both sides are still talking.

 

Notes

1. Hindu, July 30, 1997.

2. Pioneer, June 21, 1996.

3. New Straits Times, June 25, 1996.

4. Pioneer, September 24, 1996. Jerusalem Post, July 10, 1996.

5. Jerusalem Post, August 26, 1996.

6. Hindu, October 13, 1996.

7. Hindu, January 16, 1997.

8. Statesman, March 23, 1997.

9. Hindustan Times, December 19, 1996.

10. Khaleej Times, November 28, 1996. Jerusalem Post, December 17, 1996.

11. Times of India, May 22, 1997.

12. Statesman, March 2, 1997.

13. Statesman, March 23, 1997. Hindu, April 27, 1997.

14. Hindu, April 8, 1997.

15. Statesman, June 11, 1997.

16. Hindustan Times, June 10, 1997. Times of India, June 11, 1997.

17. Hindu, May 27, 1997.

18. International Herald Tribune, August 6, 1997.

19. Ibid.

20. Jerusalem Post, August 7, 1997.

21. Jerusalem Post, August 1, 1997.

22. Jerusalem Post, August 5, 1997.

23. Jerusalem Post, August 7, 1997.

24. Hindu, April 1, 1997.

25. Jerusalem Post, December 5, 1996.

26. Jerusalem Post, October 5, 1996.

27. Ibid.

28. Jerusalem Post, October 18, 1996.

29. Ibid.

30. Middle East Economic Survey, July 28, 1997.

31. Jerusalem Post, September 29, 1996.

32. Jerusalem Post, September 29, 1996.