- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

By John V. Whitbeck

While the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria must be welcomed, the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and, on that front, the situation has been grim for several months and is growing grimmer.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and several of his ministers wasted no time in openly expressing their doubts that it will be possible to reach a framework agreement on all permanent status issues by next February or a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by next September, the two deadlines set in the "Wye Two" agreement signed in Sharm El-Sheikh on Sept. 5.

Within less than a week of the signing ceremony, Communications Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer was already telling Israel Public Radio that "It is difficult to believe that we will be able to reach an agreement on such crucial issues inside a year," while Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Haim Ramon was publicly proposing signing a "permanent peace treaty" on most permanent status issues but leaving Jerusalem and the refugee issue for further negotiations over a longer period, when, presumably, Palestine would no longer have any leverage whatsoever.

Within the same week, Mr. Barak told Israel Public Radio that "If we do not manage to reach agreement on the final status, we could consider making another interim accord" and told the London-based Jewish Chronicle that, if no framework agreement is reached by next February, the two sides would have to settle for "long-term interim accords."

It is difficult to believe that these were random and uncoordinated musings, and the implications of such statements are ominous for all who continue to hope, six years after the Declaration of Principles was so optimistically signed, to see peace actually achieved rather than a "peace process" drag on endlessly. By definition, so long as there is a "peace process," there is no peace.

While substantial majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians publicly support the "peace process," it has been apparent from the start that most Palestinians have been focused on "peace" while most Israelis have been focused on "process."

Palestinians who support the peace process have tended to view it as a road, inevitably with some bumps and turns, leading to a destination. Israelis who support the peace process have tended to view it as a means of coping with current problems (initially, the Intifada), of reducing Palestinian violence, of keeping American diplomatic support unconditional and American financial support massive and of discouraging the rest of the world from putting any serious pressure on them. (From this perspective, the peace process has, so far, been a huge success for Israelis.) If Israelis have viewed the peace process as a road, it has been a circular one, providing a relatively smooth ride but leading nowhere.

Throughout the peace process, one searches in vain for confident statements by Israeli leaders that there is or must be a common destination at which both Israelis and Palestinians would be satisfied to arrive and to live together in peace. After Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, both his wife and his close collaborator Yossi Beilin told interviewers that, not only had the late prime minister never told them what his vision of "permanent status" might actually look like, but they had never asked him. Such reticence and lack of curiosity would be inconceivable had they not implicitly accepted that the "road to peace" was a circular one, not one with any destination.

All of the permanent status issues have been exhaustively analyzed, and all ways of dealing with them which could be mutually acceptable are well known to both sides. What has until now been lacking is not time but rather any willingness by any Israeli government to comply with international law and any vision of a peaceful destination which, in Israeli eyes, would be sufficiently more attractive than the current, thoroughly tolerable (for Israelis) status quo to cause Israelis to prefer that destination to continuing on the circular road.

Taking seriously Israel's commitment in Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles and, frankly, having no better alternative, Palestinians have struggled throughout the peace process to keep alive the belief that peace is not just desirable but also achievable. The Netanyahu government gave the impression of believing that peace was not only not achievable but not even desirable. Those years could be waited out in the hope of a better Israeli government to follow. Now, in its early days, the Barak government is making a conscious effort to advertise the belief that, while peace is desirable, it is not achievable, either now or in the foreseeable future. This is deeply dangerous.

Time is running out. The Clinton administration's position that "anything acceptable to the parties is acceptable to us" (a seemingly balanced way of saying that Israel can do whatever it pleases) will not prevent the explosive crash which is coming down the road. Now is the time for Bill Clinton to unveil his vision of what "permanent status" might actually look like a vision consistent both with international law and with the fundamental principles and values which America purports to represent.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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