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How Middle East peace process was killed

By H.D.S. Greenway, 5/3/2002

BOOKS ARE being written about what went wrong with the Oslo peace process in the Middle East, and there will be as many theories as there are authors. But one of the most persistent myths is that Yasser Arafat turned down the most generous offer any Israeli leader had ever made and decided to return to armed struggle.

It is true that Arafat didn't accept Israel's offer at Camp David, but the Palestinians didn't stop negotiating. The fact is that negotiations went on at the Red Sea resort of Taba after Camp David, bringing the two positions even closer, even after riots had broken out following Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. That round of negotiations ended when Israel's Ehud Barak closed them down in order to begin his election campaign. When Oslo's archenemy, Sharon, came to power, Oslo died.

Israel's offer at Camp David was indeed the most generous offer Israel had ever made, but it was not an offer of a viable Palestinian state. The Palestine on offer was chopped up into sectors with no access to each other - separated by Israeli settlements, settlement roads, and Israeli-controlled areas. The same was true of East Jerusalem, where Israelis have been trying to force Palestinians to leave. It was if the Palestinian state were to get the spots while the rest of the leopard would remain in Israeli hands. And during the Oslo years Jewish settlements doubled.

Another mistake was for President Clinton and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak to insist that this was an all-or-nothing deal that had to be signed before either of their terms were up. It would have been better to end negotiations by saying that everything agreed upon up to then was settled and the areas of disagreement put off until later. As it was, the burst of Palestinian anger that developed after Sharon's famous Temple Mount visit was encouraged by many of the younger Palestinian leaders frustrated not only with Oslo but with Arafat himself. And Arafat chose not to stop it when he still could.

But long before those tantalizingly close Taba negotiations were ended, the Oslo process was in trouble. What the Israelis most wanted was security. What the Palestinians most wanted was an end to the occupation and their own state. And although there was progress on both fronts, it was not enough, so both sides felt betrayed.

Yitzhak Rabin's only precondition was that Yasser Arafat promise to give up armed struggle. Arafat pledged to do so, and in a historic shift, renounced Palestinian claims over Israel proper and agreed to a two-state solution. And for a while, Israelis today agree, Arafat kept his promise and began locking up terrorists. Security had seldom been better.

For Israel, however, it was a sign-now-and-we'll-negotiate-later arrangement, while what Palestinians thought they were getting was the same deal Egypt's Anwar Sadat got - a wrapping up of the settlements and an end to the occupation with all deliberate speed.

What the Israelis, the Americans, and even Arafat didn't perceive was that delays and foot-dragging over timetables for implementing the agreement and the never-ending Jewish settlement expansion would prove fatal. Dividing up occupied territories into different A zones and B zones of Palestinian control just meant more checkpoints, more humiliations, and more disruption to the economy. Too many Palestinians got poorer instead of richer, more harrassed instead of less, adding to the growing disillusionment. Arafat didn't help matters by running a corrupt and undemocratic administration that turned off even more Palestinians to the peace process.

The lack of swift progress meant that the lid on violence began to lift. There were approximately 36 bombings during the Oslo years. Arafat may have permitted some of them, but, as President Clinton said, there was never ''just one source of violence'' in the occupied territories. Arafat could never deliver every armed faction once popular opinion in the occupied territories began to turn against Oslo. Arafat needed swift progress toward a Palestinian state, which he never got. And the Israelis never got the security they needed.

When Rabin was murdered by an Israeli who objected to the peace process, the foot-dragging got worse. The dovish Labor Party lost to the hawkish Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, who despised the Oslo process but could not run on a platform against peace. So he put as many impediments to Oslo as he could once in office.

During the Oslo years, starting in 1993, too few Palestinians thought the process was working for them, and they saw Israeli betrayal in every delay, while Israelis never got the security they had a right to expect. When Ariel Sharon came to power he began dismantling the Palestinian Authority piece by piece, thus reducing Arafat's ability to maintain order, all the while calling upon Arafat to do more.

Israelis and Palestinians will argue forever over who was to blame for the Oslo failure, but former senator George Mitchell's commission found enough fault to go around. Mitchell spoke recently of the lack of ''economic growth and job creation'' in the occupied territories as one of the major factors and of the ''high correlation'' between violence and a declining economy throughout history.

Palestinian violence, however, got hard-liners Netanyahu and Sharon elected and discredited the Israeli peace camp. As for the Israelis, the shortsightedness of Sharon's policies in the occupied territories is not just that ''each death creates a new demand for revenge,'' as Mitchell said, but that the levels of West Bank destruction will create the perfect conditions for future economic decline leading to more violence.

By burning down the Palestinian house, Sharon has guaranteed that more fire will spread next door to his, and maybe to the Arab states that recognize Israel as well.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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