- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Are President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak, both in the twilight of their tenures, neither anymore in a position to commit their respective legislatures, going to saddle the people of Israel with a last-minute agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat an agreement which most Israelis reject and which Israeli Gen. Shaul Mofaz has described as endangering Israel's security?
Part of the answer to this question is in the hands of none other than Mr. Arafat. It is fairly easy to reach an agreement if you give the other side everything it wants but apparently not in this case. Not only is Mr. Arafat in spite of the fact that the Clinton-Barak proposals would give him much more than anyone else would ever have offered him holding out for more, but his reluctance to agree even to these generous proposals seems to indicate that he may not want any agreement which would officially and finally bring the conflict with Israel to an end.
The scenario can best be described as surrealistic. Though within weeks from now there will be a new U.S. administration and probably a different Israeli government, it is suggested that in this short period Israel give up its sovereignty in its historic Temple Mount, redivide Jerusalem, to hand over to the Palestinians not only 95 percent of the lands which are the cradle of the Jewish people's national and religious existence, including the strategically vital Jordan Valley which is Israel's most important physical barrier against potential aggression from Iraq, but parts of the Negev. Furthermore, Israel would have to admit 100,000 or more Palestinian "refugees" who are refugees only because most of the Arab states for over 50 years never bothered to absorb them in their midst contrary to the Israelis who went out of their way to treat Jewish refugees from Europe and the Arab countries as their own.
One of the principal incentives for some of Israel's Arab neighbors to make peace is Israel's overall strength and its record in defeating all previous acts of aggression but if the above plan were to go ahead, the perception of a more vulnerable Israel, having lost a major part of its defensible borders and vital security zones is bound to revive the appetite among some of its enemies for another try. Though Israel will still be victorious, the consequences for peace and stability in the region are daunting.
For more than 30 years, different U.S. administrations have played a central role in promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the U.S.-Israeli special relationship being a major strategic factor in persuading parts of the Arab world to make at least "pragmatic" if not yet "ideological" peace with Israel (i.e. recognizing its right to exist). Those ties, based both on common strategic interests and on common values and the Judeo-Christian tradition, will continue and prosper as President-elect Bush has repeatedly stated.
After all, both the United States and Israel are facing common dangers in the Middle East. The threat from rogue states such as Iran and Iraq even if the State Department prefers to call them only "states of concern" is real and growing. Saddam Hussein could soon be back where he was on the eve of the Gulf War. Iran, just having concluded a new military agreement with Russia, is energetically developing its missile and nuclear capabilities. Israel thus feels encouraged by Mr. Bush's and Secretary of Defense-nominee Donald Rumsfeld's determination to create a credible missile defense shield possibly in conjunction with Israel's own efforts in this field.
But to come back to the Arab-Israeli peace process, some critics, Richard Haas of the Brookings Institute to mention one, have remarked that President Clinton's over-involvement in the details of the process has not helped America's prestige or position. Nor, judging by results, has it lead to the peace and end of bloodshed which the Israeli signatories to the Oslo agreement genuinely though in retrospect mistakenly were hoping for.
Be this as it may, based on the experience of the seven years since the Oslo agreement, and especially in light of the wave of Palestinian violence and terror which Mr. Arafat unleashed three months ago practical efforts to promote a modus vivendi between the sides should now be focused not on achieving the impossible or the unacceptable; that is, final, permanent solutions to all outstanding problems but on forging long-term interim agreements, ending the violence and materially improving the respective situations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Undoubtedly, Ambassador Max Kampelman, America's eminent former arms negotiator and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was right when he suggested last October that there should be a six-month recess in the negotiations. Indeed, the Oslo agreement's two principal faults may have been that it did not sufficiently pay attention to its inherent security risks and that the Palestinians were not required to sign a peace agreement. I predicted at the time, in these pages, that the famous handshake on the White House lawn would come back to haunt the president of the United States, and I am afraid it did.
Obviously Mr. Arafat wants to get now all he can from the outgoing administration, but his real, longer-term aim is to limit America's and Israel's part in setting the agenda of the peace process, preferring to "internationalize" it, granting an equal role to the Europeans, Russia and the United Nations. Needless to say that this would not serve the interests of either America or Israel, nor would it serve the cause of peace.
Having dealt with U.S.-Israel relations for the best part of my professional life, I expect that representatives of the next Israel government and the new U.S. administration will get together at the highest level as soon as possible in order to discuss all the aspects relevant to the two countries' close ties.
One may hope that the soon-to-be installed Bush administration, rather than rushing headlong into continuing from where the outgoing administration left off, would first examine all other options in the peace process. Though so many things have gone wrong, peace is still possible, perhaps even inevitable.

Zalman Shoval is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

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