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Why Mideast Peace Still Eludes

Peace talks may shift to Washington next week, but lack a strong drive for compromise.

This week, the Clinton administration is learning a hard truth about diplomacy: When it comes to peacemaking, Middle East negotiations are the major league.

United States officials had hoped that this time things might go more smoothly. Fresh from the triumph of the nascent Northern Ireland peace agreement, a US-British team invited the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to London on May 4 to discuss the long-elusive Mideast peace agreement.

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That effort remains alive, but only just. At time of writing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained far apart on the key issue of further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

The peace talks may move to Washington next week. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says enough progress has been made to hope for agreement in coming days.

But many of the elements that helped push the parties together in the case of Northern Ireland remain absent in the Middle East, note analysts.

Most notably, Mr. Netanyahu appears to believe that the status quo of stalemate is an acceptable alternative. And for all its bluster, the Clinton administration does not appear willing to shove him too hard.

"There have been cases where presidents felt freer to begin really exerting pressure on Israeli governments," says Michael Fischbach, an expert in Middle East history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

Juxtaposing the stalled Middle East peace process with the more productive effort in Northern Ireland is in some senses an unfair comparison. The goals and actions of the parties involved are shaped by very different histories.

But observers of the Middle East point out, somewhat wistfully, that both conflicts experienced dramatic breakthroughs in 1993. Britain agreed to accept Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, as a negotiating partner - a move that led directly to the construction of a possible comprehensive peace. Israel, at nearly the same time, recognized the PLO - a move that led to further agreements in Oslo and then to a dead end.

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The central issue between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat now involves further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, per an Oslo agreement timetable.

Privately, United States officials have urged Netanyahu to pull back from an additional 13 percent of West Bank territory, in concert with Palestinian assurances that they will do more to try and prevent terrorist attacks. It's a proposal that Arafat has accepted in principle.

Netanyahu, for his part, has said publicly that he can only cede around 9 percent of the West Bank prior to the start of negotiations on the final status of Palestinian land.

In two days of accelerated talks in London this week, Netanyahu and Arafat never did discuss this disconnect face to face. They talked, instead, to go-betweens: Ms. Albright, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

WHILE progress was made on small, symbolic issues such as the opening of duty-free industrial zones, and an airport, the central question of pull-back remains.

"We haven't closed all of the gaps," said Netanyahu.

The question now becomes, what, if anything, will the administration do to get Netanyahu to change his mind?

US officials have threatened to make their pull-back proposal public, in an effort to increase pressure on Israel. But 81 US senators have already signed a letter urging President Clinton to do no such thing, contending the US view is something a freely elected Israeli prime minister cannot accept.

And throughout this week's talks US spokesmen reiterated the position that America and Britain are facilitators, and that it is up to the Palestinians and Israelis to hammer out an agreement - or not.

"There is a double message coming out of Washington. The American position is ambivalent," says Ilan Pelleg, Charles A. Dana professor of government and law at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.

That would reflect the long sweep of US-Israeli relations, which have had many ebbs and flows. President Richard Nixon was a great friend of Israel, but he still put great pressure on Golda Meir to abide by a UN cease-fire in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. More recently, Bush administration officials fought bitterly with Israel over the issue of using US loan guarantees to build settler housing on occupied territories claimed by Palestinians.

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