Risky talk

Netanyahu, Arafat and Clinton all have lots to lose in the latest Mideast summit

By Jonathan Broder

Published October 1, 1996 11:35AM (EDT)


as President Clinton convenes an emergency summit in Washington today to revive the failing Middle East peace process, Israel Radio broadcast a short news item.

In six months, the story said, Israel's main bus company will cancel its weekly route to Cairo. The reason: It's no longer profitable. "During the past two years, the bus has been traveling nearly empty, with just 10 passenger a week," a company spokesman said, and his company could no longer afford to maintain the line.

When the bus route opened after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979, it was hailed as an important symbol of the new human contact between Israelis and Arabs. Now, its impending closure, a reasonable bottom-line consideration anywhere else, signals that a dangerous entropy is taking hold in the Middle East -- one that threatens to return Israelis and Arabs to the bad old days of isolation, war and economic stagnation.

The purpose of the Washington summit is to reverse that entropy -- first by getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO leader Yasir Arafat to renew their commitments to the peace process begun in 1993, and then by following up with meaningful negotiations to resolve the remaining obstacles to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. Farther down the line, U.S. officials hope that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front will unfreeze the stalled negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, producing a comprehensive Middle East accord.

But the summit is riddled with risk for all the participants. So divided are Netanyahu and Arafat on key issues that it was impossible for the United States to draw up an agenda for the talks. As a result, President Clinton initially plans to meet seperately with the Israeli leader and Arafat Tuesday morning, bringing them together for a plenary only in the afternoon. The schedule for Wednesday still isn't clear. It is not certain whether Netanyahu and Arafat will meet face-to-face without President Clinton being present.

"The president's interest is to do whatever he can do to try to put the peace process back on track," said White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. "Does it involve political risk? You bet it involves political risk. But he believes political risks ought to be taken in this situation."

The White House scheduled the summit in Washington only after it failed to convince Arafat to meet with Netanyahu alone in Israel. Arafat -- whose popularity soared among Palestinians after the gun battles between his security forces and Israeli troops last week -- had demanded that the meeting take place either in Cairo or Washington and that it include President Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein to buttress him in his negotiations with Netanyahu. King Hussein is attending the summit, but the PLO leader suffered a setback when Mubarak, convinced the gathering will be nothing more than a photo opportunity, decided to stay away.

Arafat goes into the summit with world sympathy on his side over the latest fighting, sparked by Netanyahu's decision to open an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City beside Islamic holy places. In a vote of 10-0, with the United States pointedly abstaining, the United Nations Security Council criticized the Israeli decision as provocative.

The fighting that erupted also has drawn the world's attention to the damage done to the peace process since Netanyahu took power in May. In the 100 days since he's been in office, Netanyahu has postponed Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron, lifted the previous Labor government ban on Jewish settlement, closed down PLO offices in Jerusalem, kept thousands of Palestinian workers from their jobs inside Israel, and demolished a Palestinian clinic for the disabled -- ostensibly for not having a permit.

Perhaps Netanyahu's most corrosive effect on the peace process has been his attitude toward Arafat himself. The Israeli leader, whose brother was killed in the Entebbe raid against Palestinian terrorists, has made no secret of his loathing for Arafat. Rather than treating Arafat like a partner in peace, he has said repeatedly he would meet him only when it was necessary for Israel's security. The two leaders' first meeting last month took place only after U.S. officials quietly informed Netanyahu that without such a meeting, he would not get to see President Clinton during an upcoming visit to Washington.

But Arafat also goes into the summit burdened with high expectations from Palestinians back home that he'll return with concrete Israeli concessions. "If he can come out of Washington with a statement that they are going to sit down and talk about Hebron, the expansion of settlements and the opening of borders to Palestinian workers once calm has been restored, then at least he has a chance of saying to his people that he still can get things for them that are both practically and politically important," says William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the University of Virginia.

Extracting concessions from Netanyahu, however, won't be easy. The 46-year-old Israeli leader sits at the head of a hard-line, right-wing and religious coalition -- some of whose members demanded he crush the Palestinians militarily during the recent fighting, even if that meant the end of the peace process. Despite American suggestions that he close the controversial Jerusalem tunnel, Netanyahu has said the tunnel will remain open. And despite his pledge to honor the commitments of the previous government, Netanyahu has said he will not entertain any Palestinian demands for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital -- both "final status issues" that the last Israeli government had already agreed to negotiate.

Within Israel, Netanyahu is increasingly being viewed as a weak, ineffectual leader. A recent poll shows that a majority of Israelis -- 54 percent -- feel he mishandled the opening of the tunnel and precipitated the latest crisis. Doubts about his stewardship have grown as Israelis have watched relations with Syria go from dialogue to war footing, ties with Egypt deteriorate and foreign investment come to a halt. At the same time, Israelis who thought a new era of peace was dawning are finding they suddenly have to serve more time in the reserves, this time facing armed Palestinians who were supposed to be their partners in peace.

"I feel like I woke to discover that the Soviet Union hadn't really collapsed and that the end of the Cold War was just a dream," says Israeli author Ze'ev Chafets.

On the flight to Washington, Netanyahu admitted that he was on the defensive in the battle for world public opinion. He also said that if the violence stops, he would be willing to follow up the Washington summit with non-stop peace talks to resolve the issues of Israel's withdrawal from Hebron, the opening of Israel's borders to more Palestinian workers, and a package of security concerns, including the fate of a proposed Palestinian airport in Gaza. U.S. officials have praised Netanyahu's offer, but it could encounter opposition from Arafat, who says all of these issues were resolved in previous peace talks and now need to be implemented, not renegotiated.

For President Clinton, the summit is also risky, coming only weeks before the presidential elections. After investing so much time and effort in the Middle East peace process, Clinton's inability to show progress at the summit would certainly be seized upon by Republican challenger Bob Dole as an example of Clinton's failure in foreign policy. Another potential minefield lies in any perception of Clinton as pressuring Netanyahu to make concessions -- a perception that could offend the influential American Jewish community.

Observers agree that President Clinton will have to tread carefully. His aides have cautioned not to expect miracles, adding that the administration will consider the summit a success if it just gets both sides talking again.

That's the bottom line in Washington. In the Middle East, success will be measured in more quotidian terms -- a day without violence, a dependable job, and, of course, a working bus line to Cairo.

Quote of the day

Cruel and unusual punishment

"Najibullah was a bad Afghan, and a very cruel man. But what the Taliban did to him was quite horrible, and now we must think about the kind of people they must be to do such a brutal thing. Maybe our lives now will be even more difficult than before."

-- An ex-prisoner of the Communist secret police in Afghanistan, commenting on the punishment of former Communist leader Najibullah, who was tortured, shot and hung in public by the triumphant Islamic fundamentalists of the Taliban (from today's New York Times).

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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