The Oslo Process—Back on Track?

by Joel Beinin | published October 7, 1999

During his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat on September 23, President Clinton responded to a reporter who asked whether he would like to be the US President who helped achieve a Palestinian state by saying, "The question of the state is one to be resolved in the permanent status talks that have just begun. I think, obviously, the two sides will make an agreement on that or there wonât be an agreement." (New York Times, September 24, 1999). Days later it was reported that, in only its first three months in office, the newly installed Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has sought bids for the construction of 2,600 new housing units in various West Bank settlements. The previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu had authorized "only" 3,000 new homes each year. President Clintonâs evasiveness and the accelerated pace of West Bank settlement construction illuminate the nature of the final status talks now underway between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

During his recent visit to Washington, Ehud Barak accomplished a major strategic objective for the negotiations: removing the United States as an active mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, while deepening the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States. This was not a very difficult task; this has been the preferred role of successive American administrations since the convening of the 1991 Madrid conference.

The intransigence and prevarications of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu compelled President Clinton to take a more active role in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations so as to preserve the gains of the Oslo process, which have substantially enhanced American diplomatic influence the Middle East. Clinton personally convened a conference at the Wye Plantation last October and twisted Netanyahuâs arm to secure Israeli agreement to an accord that the Israeli leader probably did not want and his coalition could implement only at its political peril.

The Palestinian negotiating team perceived this high level of American intervention as a great achievement. The US and the Palestinians were tactically aligned in supporting a continuation of the Oslo process. The Israeli government, by suspending implementation of the Wye River accord after only 2 percent of the proposed 13.1 percent of the West Bank was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, opposed continuing the process. During the six months between the freezing of the Oslo process and Barakâs election as Prime Minister, Clinton promised Arafat that he would play a more active role in the negotiations if this were necessary to achieve an agreement.

Ehud Barak certainly wants to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum signed by the two parties on September 4 sets the goals of drafting a statement of principles for a final status agreement by February 2000 and reaching a full agreement by September 2000. By taking a back seat, President Clinton hopes to be able to preside over the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before he leaves office without risking his (or Hillaryâs) political capital.

Clintonâs statement on Palestinian statehood indicates he will accept any agreement that Israel and the Palestinians reach. Given the US-Israeli alliance, the Arab statesâ very limited capacity to influence the outcome of the negotiations, and Israelâs overwhelming power vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Israel will have a free hand to try to force the Palestinians to accept a settlement far short of their repeatedly stated goal of an independent state in all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Ehud Barak has forcefully and repeatedly announced Israeli negotiating positions that reject the preferred Palestinian outcome. Before the resumption of final status talks on September 13, he instructed the Israeli negotiating team on the "red lines" they should observe: Israel will not return to the 1967 borders; united Jerusalem is Israelâs eternal capital; there will be no foreign army west of the Jordan River; and most Israeli settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty. (Israeli Cabinet Communique, September 14, 1999)

In addition to East Jerusalem in its municipal boundaries as unilaterally expanded by Israel, Barak envisions annexing substantial parts of the West Bank: the area between Jerusalem and Ma`aleh Adumim, a large settlement on the road to Jericho; areas to the southwest (the Etzion Bloc) and northwest of Jerusalem (centered on Giv`at Zeâev); and an area of the northern West Bank east of Qalqilya whose major settlement is Ariel (appropriately named after former Defense and Foreign Minister Sharon). Most of the new housing starts approved by the Barak government are in these four settlement blocs.

Before leaving office the Netanyahu government expanded the area of Ma`aleh Adumim, anticipating its annexation. On October 6 the Israeli High Court of Justice postponed hearing a petition opposing this action. BâTselem, the Israeli human rights organization, recently released a report entitled "On the Way to Annexation: Human Rights Violations Resulting from the Establishment and Expansion of the Ma`aleh Adumim Settlement." B' Tselem argues that Israel has violated international law by expropriating land, demolishing homes, deporting Palestinians and creating a system of residential segregation.

While no one can reasonably predict the details of the final status agreement or whether one will be reached at all, examining the process that resulted in the Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum provides a sense of the Barak teamâs style and approach to substantive issues in negotiations. The Oslo accords stipulate that Israel will release Palestinian prisoners who committed security and political offenses before September 13, 1993 -- the date of signing the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles. Israel has released about 8,000 prisoners. At Wye River, Netanyahu agreed to release 750 of the approximately 2,850 Palestinian prisoners Israel still held. Some 600 of these were common criminals and the rest were security prisoners, mostly members of PLO organizations that rejected the Oslo accords, or members of HAMAS or Islamic Jihad or those regarded as "having Israeli blood on their hands" individuals accused of responsibility for death or serious injury of Israelis.

Before suspending implementation of the Wye River agreement the Netanyahu government freed 250 prisoners. But the majority were criminals, not political prisoners. This was technically permitted because the text of the agreement did not specify which prisoners were to be released. Many Israeli-Palestinian agreements contain such ambiguities, and the Palestinian negotiators have apparently not learned that they must dot every "i" and cross every "t" if they expect Israel to deliver what they believe has been agreed to.

The number and character of the prisoners released was considered so unacceptable by ordinary Palestinians that the home of the negotiator responsible for the prisoner agreement was attacked by a crowd. Consequently, the Palestinian team led by Saeb Erekat bargained hard with the Israeli team led by Gilad Sher for the maximum number of political prisoners to be released as a component of the agreement to resume implementation of the Wye River accords. The signing of the Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum was delayed several days because the Palestinians insisted that at least 400 of the remaining prisoners yet to be released should be political prisoners. The Israelis contended that they held no more than 350 security prisoners who did not "have Israeli blood on their hands."

In the end, the Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum stipulates the release of exactly 350 security prisoners -- a total capitulation by the Palestinian side. Two hundred were to be released on September 9 and 150 more are to be released on October 8. One of the original 200 was due to be released in a few weeks and decided to remain in jail to enable the release of another prisoner. The Israelis accepted his demand not to be released and released only 199 prisoners.

Israel's position on prisoner release implies that violent acts of Palestinian resistance are simply crimes, whereas acts of violence by Israelis in official or unofficial capacity are legitimate self-defense or at the worst, unfortunate excesses. The term "having Israeli blood on their hands" is one-sided. Ehud Barak is widely believed to have infiltrated into Beirut, disguised as a woman, to assassinate civilian PLO leaders in 1974. Israeli governments have reduced sentences or amnestied settlers convicted of killing or maiming Palestinians. Settlers at Kiryat Arba erected a shrine at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of a massacre of 29 innocent Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.

If negotiations over the prisoner release in the Sharm al-Shaykh Memorandum are a taste of what is to come, we can expect the Israeli negotiators to press every advantage with the Palestinians and not to concede anything, even one prisoner, despite any loss of good feeling and positive momentum that might be entailed. Given the prevailing balance of power and the lack of any counter-weight to the US-Israeli alliance and the dominance of the Israeli side, the odds are not good for the creation of a Palestinian state of the sort that the Palestinian negotiators envision. If a Palestinian state is established, it is very likely that "Israel will still dominate everything that matters," as Anthony Lewis recently argued. (New York Times Magazine, June 20, 1999.)