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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

February 1999

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Breakthrough or
Band-aid?

by
Hermann Frederick Eilts



T A HASTILY CONVENED WHITE HOUSE CEREMONY on October 23, 1998, a new Israeli-Palestinian agreement, dubbed the “Wye Memorandum” after its locus of negotiation in Maryland, was solemnly signed by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestine Authority (PA) leader Yasir Arafat. President William Clinton, who had played a major and impressive role in forging the Wye document, signed as witness. A sadly ailing King Husain of Jordan, twice called upon during the Wye talks to intervene with the two principal protagonists, benevolently looked on. The Wye memorandum was the fourth in a series of implementing documents of the Oslo I agreement of 1993. The once promising stages of the Oslo-envisaged schedule of actions are far behind schedule. In large part, this is due to the Israeli elections of 1996 which brought into power in Israel a minority Likud coalition government dependent upon extremist right wing minor parties. Apart from Netanyahu’s own intransigent views, he is dependent upon these rightist elements of the Israeli political spectrum and will remain so.

The self-immolating Hamas bombing in Jerusalem on November 6, 1998, at once complicated and eased Netanyahu’s ratification problem. How could Israel, in the face of such Palestinian actions, be expected to honor obligations to a PA clearly unwilling or unable to enforce security? A fair question which the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad extremists consciously seek to underscore as they pursue their ideologically driven quest to “reconquer,” whatever that may mean, the Israeli-occupied areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu and the generation he represents, Israelis who are largely sectarian in basic outlook, have little patience for traditional holy sites, be they Jewish or, even less so, Muslim. Orthodox Jews, however, represent important constituency concerns; their continued loyalty is necessary to maintain the Likud coalition in office.

The Wye memorandum comes fives years after the conclusion of Oslo I in 1993, negotiated by the Norwegians with patent American skepticism, but then embraced by the Clinton Administration in a much heralded White House ceremony. The Clinton Administration deserved no credit for the substance of Oslo I but was happy to appropriate it for public relations purposes. Ironically, so were the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the ensuing three years, the Clinton administration’s primary concern has been process rather than substance. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who unquestionably deserves commendation for his indefatigable efforts, nevertheless viewed his primary role as a “facilitator” in promoting direct talks between the parties rather than as a mediator. Past precedent had graphically demonstrated the inadequacy of limiting American involvement to any such simple go-between role.

Although Ross and his colleagues had reluctantly and gingerly engaged in limited substantive involvement in the Hebron agreement, mainly in delineating the Shuhadac dividing street line between Israeli and Palestinian parts of that volatile town, the Clinton Administration still preferred to eschew any partnership role in the ongoing negotiations. Not until Secretary Albright, in August 1998, realistically assessed the deleterious effects of the long-stalled peace talks on the overall U.S. position in the Middle East with respect to desired Arab cooperation against Iraq and Iran, did a more active U.S role finally materialize. An American proposal was then belatedly developed on what the U.S. considered to be a mutually equitable second stage Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory as envisaged in the original Oslo agreement. Not unreasonably, it would be closely racheted to more effective PA actions against Palestinian terrorists. In thus shifting its strategy, the Clinton administration was reverting to the pattern of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. It had belatedly learned that the only prospect for any success in Arab-Israeli negotiations, however painful, is direct and substantive U.S. engagement. Process, while important, is no substitute for substance.

With increasing violence in the West Bank and Palestinian terrorist actions directed at Israelis in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere, coupled with a threat by Arafat to declare an independent Palestinian state on May 8,1999, the date by which the Oslo I arrangements were to have been completed, the Clinton administration had perforce to adopt new procedures. It was aware that Netanyahu had warned that if the Palestinians did so, Israel would feel free to re-occupy Gaza and West Bank areas that had earlier been returned to Palestinian control. The Netanyahu warning must surely have sent a shock to the Israeli military. Notwithstanding its obvious professional competence, it recalled that the prolonged occupation of predominantly Palestinian areas was a casualty-prone dead end. If ordered to do so, it would of course comply, but most senior commanders did not relish the prospect.

From an Israeli point of view, Palestinian terrorism—largely conducted by Islamist fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Jihad—had to be effectively curbed by the PA. ln theory, that is a fair demand, though it might be noted that the Israeli military, when it still occupied Gaza and all of the West Bank, had also been unable to prevent all terrorism. Nor have Israeli police or intelligence services been able to prevent Palestinian terrorists from penetrating presumably tight Israeli security controls. Even more disturbing, but also symbolizing the difficulties of preempting terrorist acts, some such Palestinian perpetrators have actually come from Israeli controlled parts of the West Bank.

The Labor government’s turnover of control of most of Gaza and a very small part of the West Bank, consistent with Oslo I, transferred to the PA the frustrating task of detecting, ferreting out, and stopping Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Disorganized as it is, it faltered in that endeavor. So long as Arafat still aspired to coopt Hamas to the peace process, he was reluctant to act strongly against Hamas’s youthful militant arm, the Izz al-Din al Qassam brigades. Arafat was slow to learn the lesson, but after Wye there has been a roundup of Hamas leaders and its ideological chief, the quadriplegic Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, is currently under house arrest.

Arafat was being asked to take steps against Hamas and Jihad followers, who constitute some twenty or more percent of the Palestinian community in Gaza and the West Bank, at a time when the economy of both regions is abysma—a daunting task at best. Doing so risks inciting civil war among Palestinians. Clearly nothing would please Netanyahu and his supporters more than if this were to happen or if, as a result of suppressive Palestinian police actions, Arafat’s PA is further condemned at home and by international human rights groups. Requisite repression of Palestinian dissident groups, in the face of prevailing economic penury and scant hopes for a meaningful Palestinian territorial state, hardly helps Arafat’s already jaded image at home. For reasons of domestic politics, neither Arafat nor Netanyahu finds it politically palatable to curb their respective extremists. This is the sad fact of the equation. Yet both the Likud government and the Clinton Administration view effective suppression of putative Palestinian terrorism against Israel as the test of the PA’s ability to rule over any Palestinian entity. In contrast, Israeli extremism is largely ignored.

For Arafat, the issue also has a different dimension. He needs “land for peace” as stipulated in the Oslo I agreement, which would ultimately constitute a Palestinian state. In his ailing condition, he desperately wants some kind of Palestinian state in his lifetime. To be sure, under the previous Labor government. much of Gaza and the seven principal Palestinian cities of the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) were ultimately transferred to PA jurisdiction. Paradoxically, these towns, while constituting only two percent of West Bank territory, contain about ninety-eight percent of the two million Palestinian West Bank inhabitants. Netanyahu can thus logically argue that virtually all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are already under PA jurisdiction, even though the exclusively controlled PA land area is Lilliputian in size.

Additionally, some twenty-seven percent of the West Bank is jointly controlled at present by Israel and the PA. In Gaza, sixty percent of that desolate land strip, where a million and a half Palestinians live, is in PA hands while forty percent, where some 3,000 Jewish settlers live, is under Israeli control. The contrast between Israeli and Palestinian living standards in Gaza is acute.

Aggravating the issue were the Jewish settlements that had been established in the West Bank since 1973 and their status in any possible Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The number of Israeli settlers outside Jerusalem, many of American origin, has increased to about 160,000 from what were less than 70.000 at the time the Camp David agreements of 1978. Thus, the demographics of the West Bank have materially altered in the past two decades. The Israeli setters in the West Bank are among the most militant of the Israeli population and are determined to resist any attempts to return territory to the Palestinians.

Other Palestinian demands included the belated opening of the Gaza airport, which has been built with European and Arab money and whose already-built, rather grand ornamental structures stood, Ozymandius-like but unused, for a year or more in western Gaza because of disagreement on control procedures; the beginning of construction on a Gaza port; and free transit arrangements for Palestinians between Gaza and Jericho in the West Bank. For Israel, these were useful bargaining chips, though critical security considerations are also involved. For the Palestinians, these represent sovereignty symbols, as well as desperately needed economic necessities.

Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to the American proposal that 13.1 percent of the West Bank be transferred to PA jurisdiction, though three percent of this area will be considered a jointly administered nature preserve on which the Palestinians will not be allowed to build. The requisite anti-terrorist plan was developed with CIA participation; its implementation is also to be monitored by CIA personnel. Only in this way, Netanyahu argued, can there be any assurance that the PA will not resort to past “revolving door” tactics in incarcerating Palestinian terrorists and shortly thereafter releasing them. Netanyahu also demanded the reduction in size of the various disparate Palestinian security agencies, which have grown like topsy and which are seen as a potential threat to Israeli security.

No agreement could be reached at Wye on the third withdrawal stipulated in the Oslo I agreement. Netanyahu wished this to be fused with “final status” talks. When pressed to honor the Oslo commitment, he indicated that no more than an additional one percent of territory could be returned in any such third withdrawal. Arafat agreed to reduce his security forces to no more than 28,000 officers and men and, separately, to try to collect all weapons held by private Palestinians.

An effort on his part to obtain Netanyahu’s agreement to disarm Israeli settlers failed. Arafat also agreed to the formal removal of the anti-Israeli clauses of the Palestine National Charter through a series of steps leading to such revocation by the Palestine National Council. Of the 3,500 Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel, Netanyahu agreed to the phased release of about 750. Those “with Israeli blood on their hands” in the Israeli formulation, however, will remain imprisoned.

Many Israelis, including a few Likud followers, have reluctantly come to recognize that there can be no real peace in the Middle East without a Palestinian state. Such a state will have to be demilitarized, and its economic viability is questionable. Sooner or later the economic union envisaged in the 1947 UN resolution dividing the former British Palestine mandate still makes the best long-term sense. Nor is it feasible that any substantial portion of the two and a half million Palestinian refugees now scattered throughout the world can hope to return to what will at best be a tiny Palestine state. Most will want compensation for lands that they or their parents lost when they fled in the 1948 war. If compensation is to be paid, Israel will assuredly decline sole responsibility. It will contend, as it has in the past, that any such Palestinian claims have to be balanced against losses sustained by Israelis who fled from North African and Middle East countries in the wake of the 1948 war. All parties will expect the United States to contribute substantially to a compensation fund, which is hardly likely to find much favor with the Congress or the American public. The issue will remain protractedly unresolved

In supplementary letters to the Wye accord, certainly to Arafat’s discomfiture, the Clinton administration assured Israel that it will not substantively intervene in the “final status” talks or take a position on an independent Palestinian state This augurs poorly for those upcoming crucial talks. The Wye memorandum talks may have been a heroic short-term effort, but its longer-term effects are likely to be ephemeral. The most contentious Israeli-Palestinian issues still loom.

The seeming improvement in the Israeli position in the Middle East that had developed under Rabin and Peres has been lost by Netanyahu and his Likud government. U.S. efforts to salvage it at the Doha economic summit of December 1997 were a fiasco. Some of these Arab states would like to improve ties with Israel, but dare not do so in the absence of any meaningful progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front. It will take time and a more positive attitude towards Arabs and Muslims than Netanyahu has thus far shown to restore that once hopeful trend. (Oct. 1998)


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Ambassador Eilts pursued academic endeavors at Boston University from1979 to1993 after a distinguished thirty-two-year diplomatic career that saw him named successively as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. ~ Ed.

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