June 29, 2000
Israel enters decisive moment in history with a house divided
JERUSALEM - After years of talking about it, anticipating it and preparing for it, a divided and unprepared Israel this week faced what may at last be the decisive phase of the peace process.U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew into the region Tuesday to determine whether the time is ripe for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to attend a Camp David-like summit with President Clinton. But even before her arrival, key members of Ehud Barak's battered coalition said they would not attend such a meeting even if the premier asked them to join him.
Indeed, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky said Monday that "on the basis of the present, narrow government and on the basis of the present method of negotiating" with the Palestinians, he would pull out of the government the moment Barak decided to go to Washington.On the other side of the negotiating table, Palestinian officials from Yasser Arafat on down hardened their positions on the eve of Albright's visit.
While they affirmed that the coming days and weeks are "critical" for the peace process, they accused Israel of inflexibility while they themselves insisted on recovering virtually all of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.
Hours before Albright arrived Tuesday, Arafat made it clear that he would make no new concessions in the talks aimed at reaching a final peace accord. The preceding day, he repeatedly said there is no point to holding the summit now.
There was even tougher rhetoric from Arafat on Sunday, when he warned of a possible new intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and asserted he would soon unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state.The heated rhetoric did not subside after Albright met Wednesday with officials from both sides. Arafat demanded that Israel turn over all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem. Barak's chief political adviser, Danny Yatom, warned that Israel would "take steps" if diplomatic efforts fail and the Palestinians unilaterally declare a state. For her part, Albright called her talks with the two sides "productive" and said she would report to Clinton after returning to Washington on Thursday.
Prospects for holding the summit any time soon dimmed after Albright heard from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. After she met Wednesday with Arafat in the West Bank, Palestinian officials said there would be nosummit until after there is progress in lower- level negotiations, which they said would resume next week in Washington.
While there were a few scant signs of cooperation between the two sides, for the most part this was a week of discordance. Sharansky was foremost among Barak's ministers sounding dissonant notes, but there were others.
Sharansky called over the weekend for a national unity government, with the opposition Likud joining the Labor-led coalition. This government, he argues, enjoying wide popular support, would be able to set "red lines" beyond which Israel would not go in the final-status talks with the Palestinians.
Yitzhak Levy, the leader of the National Religious Party, another coalition partner, echoed Sharansky's resignation threat. Along with other ministers, some from Barak's own party, Levy complained that Barak and his negotiators were keeping the Cabinet in the dark about the progress of the talks.
Foreign Minister David Levy was among the disgruntled Cabinet members. This week, he upbraided "certain ministers" for adopting negotiating positions that leave Israel, in his view, "denuded of all our assets."
For his part, Barak is trying to patch things up with Levy, to keep the NRP and Sharansky on board for as long as possible and at the same time to pursue the negotiations with a new sense of urgency, as the sand in Clinton's White House hourglass inexorably runs out.
Key Cabinet doves, among them Yossi Beilin of Labor and Amnon Shahak of the Center Party, publicly urged Barak this week to press ahead toward the summit, despite the growing unrest within his government.
Plainly, the gulf between rhetoric and reality is particularly wide at this time, as the leaders of the two sides strive to keep their final concessions under wraps pending the possible make-or-break summit. For public consumption, Arafat speaks of the Palestinians' inalienable right of return to homes they left during the 1948 War of Independence and the incontrovertible status of eastern Jerusalem as the Palestinians' capital. For public consumption, too, Barak's office repeatedly downplays the validity of reports purporting to detail the present state of the negotiations, and of the shape of the evolving permanent status agreement.According to these reports: