The sudden early-morning conclusion of the Camp David talks last Tuesday were expected, and yet came as something of a shock. The odds of a breakthrough agreement on Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem seemed impossibly high, even though we had come a long way to understanding that some kind of Palestinian state was now implicit. And yet, there was always the hope (or fear depending upon one's political views) that the two leaders might drive themselves beyond their accepted boundary lines. There were, after all, some powerful inducements: A Palestinian state for Chairman Yasser Arafat in his lifetime; the presumed end of war and violence for Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
But failure and the morning after - a great relief to hard-liners among both Israelis and Palestinians - has made realists of us all. We now can see that the talks were probably doomed from the beginning. A dream, worth the effort for some, to be denounced by others, is now behind us. What is going to happen next?It is always sensible to start with some of the realties, some of the facts on the ground.
Arafat apparently has returned home a national hero - for standing up to the Americans and standing fast against Ehud Barak on Jerusalem. Leaders of the other Arab nations have also been lavish in their praise of him. And he has avoided an assassination by an Arab - a fear that he took with him to Camp David, according to an Israeli press report.
From one vantage point, it looks as though he is speeding straight ahead without brakes towards Sept. 13, the Oslo deadline for an agreement, when he appears intent upon declaring the birth of the Palestinian state. If it turns out to be a unilateral declaration, then the likelihood is he will be met with a firm Israeli military response. We can all sketch in the scenario from there.
Barak has returned home something short of a national hero. Politically, his majority within the Knesset has been shattered; he commands support from about one-third of the 120 members. The opposition is intent on bringing him down on Aug. 3 when there is a call for a vote. This occurs just before the Knesset's summer break. If successful, it will mean the dissolution of the Knesset and new elections.
Political analysts believe Barak can finesse this move and buy himself three months. It is also unclear that the disavowal by the legislature mirrors public sentiment. Israeli public opinion is uncertain where it stands at this point in time. But some pollsters say that it is evenly divided in support of an eventual deal for peace with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, there is also talk of a new political merger; that is, the formation of a unity government with Likud, which would mean Barak and Likud's Ariel Sharon sharing power together. That outcome suggests a path which parallels the one Arafat looks to be taking. Its outcome seems all too predictable.And that may well be what each side needs - more violence and more deaths - before peace negotiations can begin again.
I am counting, however, on the reality "that is not on the ground," the one that begins to make its presence felt a week to 10 days after the return of Arafat and Barak. The point at which the negotiations are part of a shared past and in which the price that each must pay for a shared future becomes all too readily apparent.Officially, Israel removed from the table all negotiated agreements and concessions when the Palestinians pulled out of Camp David. But the desire to achieve peace led to some remarkable changes during the 15 days the parties met. The Palestinians were offered a real state in nearly all of the West Bank as well as in all of Gaza. To the astonishment of many, a generous solution for the Palestinian refugee issue was offered by the Israelis, and some budging on Jerusalem itself was placed on the table; albeit not all that the Palestinians wanted.
Arafat also took some steps forward (though to this observer not as many or as daring as those of his Israeli counterpart). There were security guarantees for Israel as well as some shifting to accommodate the bulk of the Israeli settlers living on the West Bank. For all of the failure of the negotiations, there was an extraordinary amount of change contemplated and (reluctantly) accepted.
None of these supposedly remains as an offer... unless each side recognizes the desperate necessity to continue moving forward. Not incautiously to be sure, and with the brakes always accessible. The peace negotiations are over. Q.E.D. But I wouldn't bet against backdoor meetings starting anew by the aides who were present at Camp David. I'd give it about three weeks or so.