Following nine days of negotiations that had the intensity and drama of a daytime soap opera, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat signed an accord that renews previous vows to push the Middle East peace process forward.
The heated negotiations, which seemed poised to derail at several points last week, were brokered by President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who called it a "new chapter in the pursuit of permanent peace." A surprising turn of events came when Jordan's King Hussein left his hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic, where he is undergoing treatment for terminal cancer, to coax the leaders out of an impasse.
The accord stipulates that Israel is to pull out an additional 13 percent of its troops from the West Bank and release hundreds of jailed Palestinians. The Palestinians, in turn, say they will ramp up security measures to stamp out terrorism against Israelis and excise calls for the destruction of Israel from the Palestinian charter.
Salon's Daryl Lindsey spoke with Allan Solomonow, director of the Middle East program at the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit Quaker organization in San Francisco, about the implications of Friday's accord:
What are the chances the peace agreement will actually hold?
The peace agreement has to hold because there's too much vested interest on both sides. So, the question isn't whether it will hold but how quickly will it be carried out? There's going to be a lot of stalling on both sides and probably a little more on the Israeli side because it's going to be hard for the right wing to swallow. Because it is likely to be implemented slowly, that will fan the fears of both sides, and the possibilities of terrorism are heightened. This obviously could become a vicious circle and slow it down.
Where are the win-wins in this agreement, and what side comes out best?
The wins are really all implementations of the original agreements in the interim. Finally we're doing what everyone agreed to do about a year and a half ago. All this is doing is bringing us up to the point where we ought to have been then. The only operative question involved now is, when can we move on to the final stage of negotiations, which is what really counts in the eyes of citizens on both sides. Still, it's a diplomatic victory on the whole for the Palestinians because relative to Israel, a close ally of the United States, they have staved off what might have been a much more disastrous situation.
What do the Israelis and the Palestinians lose in the accord?
Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, lost face by finally having to come back with not much more than he could have negotiated a year and a half ago. Arafat is going to return, and he isn't really going to be able to deliver anything that in concrete terms improves the everyday life of Palestinians on the ground. They're both going to be getting a lot of flak from their extremists.
Do you see any inherent vulnerabilities in the agreement?
There have to be vulnerabilities. The whole question of the release of Palestinian prisoners was part of the original agreement. There's certainly a real possibility that one or more of those prisoners is going to do something nasty when they get out. The road that is going to bring or permit people to travel freely between the West Bank and Gaza is also a little dicey. The Israelis have real fears, but I think they're ones that can be met if there's a reasonable amount of trust on both sides.
What political impact will this agreement have on the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans?
It appears as though the United States, after quite a period of waffling, has actually made a decent effort. You have to give some credit to Albright and to Clinton and to American diplomacy. It could have done more, it could have done more quickly, but it finally got something done, and that's appreciated in the Middle East.
For the Palestinians, [the accord represented] very modest victories and it will be looked at, at least within Hamas and extremists within the Palestinian community, as a setback -- that there's nothing tangible to give to people and consequently the only real alternative is violence.
As far as the Israeli right is concerned, they will split but most of them will start demonstrating. There may even be some acts of violence or terror. And I suspect that there's a good chance the Israeli government will fall before the end of the year. I might even go out on a limb and say by Thanksgiving. There's been a vote of confidence pending since the last session in the spring and that won by one vote. Now, with some of the right alienated, I think one or more small parties is likely to pull out of the coalition and bring it down within the next couple of weeks. Netanyahu would have to call new elections, and I can only say that we really don't know what elections would bring, but the likelihood of the Likud being swept out of power and Labor being brought back in is significantly greater. Especially after this agreement because public view on all sides is that Labor is more capable of fulfilling its commitments on these issues than the Likud is.
How will the accord impact Netanyahu's political base?
It narrows it. Netanyahu's base is already very fragile. He was holding things together with gum, tape and paperclips, and I think this just slightly puts it over the brink. He's always been a loner. He doesn't have any faction irrevocably committed to him. Now he doesn't really have a political program to bind what's left together.
Given his domestic scandal, and recent criticism of his foreign policy, what does this success say about Clinton's international stature?
It goes up a step. He has to be given credit for doing something, but it took so much energy and zig-zagging. This was really a very small step in terms of the peace process that buys Clinton a little more time. But the truth is that our European allies, who have a very substantial amount of energy invested as well as economic investment, want to see much more happen. They need more economic stability to happen sooner to cover their investment and it's going to require much more of a diplomatic initiative. All these issues were supposed to have been resolved by 1994.
How does the accord affect the prospects of Arafat's declaring a Palestinian state next May?
I think he's going to step back from that. He's received too much, he's grown close enough to the U.S. government that he would really jeopardize that fragile alliance by declaring a state. If he's using it as a card, flashing it when he has to, I think that card is now in reserve.
Why were there so many dramatic episodes in this round of negotiations? It seemed a lot like a soap opera.
The American pressure. The Israelis had to respond to this. There was very firm American pressure behind the scenes. Pressure specifically on Israel to not use this specific excuse to pull out. And the Americans really saw through it when the Israelis were packing their bags, which I hear were empty, and putting them into the vans to go back to the airport.
How instrumental was King Hussein's role in getting peace negotiations back on track?
Here is a member of the Arab leadership who stuck his neck out, who's expected to die -- as Arafat is -- within a year, who has come out of the Mayo Clinic and gone to bat in a very independent way. He offered criticisms of the Palestinian position, he offered gentle criticisms of the Israelis and he's emerged as a mediator. It's going to be a real loss if he dies before the final agreements are concluded. He and the Egyptian government are both good bridges between the two [the Palestinians and the Israelis]. They clearly want peace running both ways.
Why was the Jonathan Pollard espionage issue such a hot-button topic?
I can't figure that out. This is the craziest cockamamie thing to bring up at the last minute. It's a red button for the Americans. My only interpretation is that Netanyahu was desperate. He felt he had to give a stronger sign to the Israeli right, and this is a good issue for them. He brought it out.
How will the American Jewish community react? Do you think there will be any impact on November elections?
I don't think it will have much of an impact on the elections. I think the Jewish community on the whole is very supportive of the peace process. I think it will be very relieved at what's happened. I think on the whole it is going to shift the American Jews, who are already fairly critical of the Netanyahu government, a shade or two further away from what little support they have left for Netanyahu. They don't like the cards Netanyahu has been playing: increasing the settlements, working on the Pollard issue, unwillingness to give up land for peace. These are issues that have resonated with American Jewery. It's been very evident in the negotiations that Netanyahu is just not where American Jews are at. [To them] he is needlessly preoccupied with security to the exclusion of peace and justice.