September 2, 1999
Peace by Fits and Starts
Despite the usual last-minute posturing, complaining and maneuvering in the region, administration officials prepared for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's Mideast trip this week confident Israel and the Palestinians will sign an agreement that will lay out implementation of the long-delayed Wye River accord.
At the White House and State Department, the focus began to shift to what comes next: preparations for the explosive permanent-status negotiations that will take up Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water rights and the nature of a Palestinian state.
Officials continue to insist that they want the parties themselves to negotiate with minimal American involvement. That new, more aloof position was implicit in the administration's rejection of Palestinian pressure to intervene in this week's talks on Wye implementation.
"We regard this principally, if not exclusively, as a matter for the two parties to negotiate between themselves," said State Department spokesman James Foley on Monday, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued arguing over the timing of new Israeli withdrawals and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
In Israel, the military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for the murder of an Israeli couple earlier this week at a nature reserve near the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has warned that peace moves with the Palestinian Authority would halt if militants continue their attacks on Israelis, declined to comment on the Hamas claim until a police investigation of the murders is completed.
Privately, Clinton administration officials conceded that pressure to get more directly involved will be intense when final-status discussions begin.
The first step likely will be negotiations over an interim declaration of principles, which will lay out the goals and procedures for the permanent-status talks, said Joel Singer, one of the architects of the original Oslo agreement and now a Washington lawyer.
"You can't just sit down and start writing a preamble and then work your way from there until you get to the signature block," he said. "Before you get to that point, you have to start laying out general principles."
Those preliminary talks, he said, will take place in private, without the diplomatic theatrics that have characterized the Wye implementation discussions.
Israel hopes to finish a framework agreement by January and aim for a December 2000 conclusion of a final-status agreement.
Officials in Washington will continue to resist efforts to drag them back into the negotiations, administration sources said, although they conceded that stance could be hard to maintain when the negotiations hit the inevitable minefields.
"The president has made it clear that it's up to the parties themselves to structure the negotiations and work out agreements," one administration official said. "But it's possible to envision scenarios where it will be very difficult for us to stay out, especially if we see a threat the process could collapse. What is key is determining when that threat is real and when it's just the result of either side jockeying for position."
Daniel Pipes, a critic of administration Mideast policy, said an agreement on Wye implementation will spur "a shift of emphasis to the Syrian track by Washington. There's a growing sense that it will be time to get that one moving."
A renewed focus on Syria, political sources said, would enable Washington to maintain a modest level of involvement without the high political risks inherent in mediation on sensitive Israeli-Palestinian issues -- something the Clinton administration wants to avoid as the 2000 presidential contest approaches.