- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

For all the talk of inevitable momentum toward a Palestinian state, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week poured cold water on an accelerated timetable. In doing so, they introduced a much-needed reality check into the proceedings. Much as everybody wants the Middle East to calm down and cool off, premature politicking will only make matters worse. The Israeli prime minister is adamant that no peace negations can take place while the killings of Israeli civilians continue, and he found solid support for that position in Washington this week. Sources say Mr. Sharon has been burnt too often trying to rely of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to contain the terrorist attacks and will not allow himself to be taken advantage of again.

Over the weekend, at Camp David, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt tried his best to convince the American president otherwise. Egypt wants to emerge as the regional peacemaker, taking over the role coveted by Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Mubarak was arguing strongly for a regional peace conference this summer and for a timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Bush yesterday poured cold water on the idea. "The conditions aren't there yet," Mr. Bush said after his meeting with Mr. Sharon in the Oval Office, stating what ought to be obvious. "That's because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government."

It's absolutely true. While Mr. Arafat huddles in his Ramallah compound with Israeli shells flying around his ears, Arab leaders, including Mr. Murabak himself, speak disparagingly of his command of the situation. Israel and the United States long since made it clear that Mr. Arafat is not worth anything as a negotiating partner, and even Palestinians, according to news reports, feel that his time has past.

Meanwhile Mr. Sharon reminded the world on Sunday, in an op-ed article in the New York Times, that planning a peace conference before the suicide bombings have stopped makes no sense for Israel particularly in light of the fact that much of the financing of the campaign has been traced to Mr. Arafat's personal financial adviser, Fuad Shubaki. The current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is clearly involved.

"First Israel must defeat terrorism," Mr. Sharon wrote about the way forward. "It cannot negotiate under fire… . This elementary commitment to permanently renouncing violence in the resolution of political differences has unfortunately not been kept by the present Palestinian leadership.

"Secondly, when Israel and the Palestinians eventually re-engage in negotiations, diplomacy must be based on realism. The race to a permanent-status agreement at Camp David and in talks at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 failed because the gaps between the parties were too wide."

It should be noted here that Mr. Sharon says "when" not "if" talks between Israel and the Palestinians resume. High-level Israeli officials speak of Mr. Sharon's genuine desire to make peace, his last remaining political ambition, but not at the expense of the security of the Israeli people. An end to the violence and movements towards genuine Palestinian reform are non-negotiable preconditions. To negotiate you have to have a partner, and currently Mr. Sharon does not believe he has one. It is hard not to agree. The idea of a Palestinian state, or even a peace conference this summer make little sense if bilateral negotiations with a trust-worthy partner cannot take place.

The failure of the Clinton administration's negotiating tactics at Camp David in July 2000, during President Clinton's last desperate sprint in the race for a Nobel Peace Prize, has to serve as a cautionary lesson. It is often noted that Mr. Arafat walked away from a deal, better than any he could have dreamed of and better than was politically wise for then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Afterward, Mr. Clinton reportedly berated Mr. Arafat bitterly for having blotted his page in the history books the Clinton page, that is.

And no doubt, the Palestinian leader should have pursued the deal as opposed to returning home in a huff and starting the second Intifada, as Mr. Arafat chose to do. Still, as the story was told by Hassan Abdel Rahman, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at a meeting with editors of The Washington Times on May 8, the Palestinian leadership had told the White House before Camp David that they were not ready for a summit in the United States.

For this, they got a visit from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who announced that a meeting would indeed take place whether they liked it or not. During the Camp David negotiations, no face-to-face meeting ever took place between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations, and all negotiations were verbally communicated by American go-betweens.

In other words, both parties were pushed too far by a U.S. administration acting for the wrong reasons. That must not happen again. The consequences on both sides have been too awful. Fortunately, Mr. Bush is not likely to try to do that nor would Mr. Sharon accept it.

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