Small steps

No euphoria greeted the painstakingly arrived at agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, hammered out late last month under U.S. auspices at Wye Mills, Maryland. None of the parties involved is under any illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead or the potential consequences, should the peace process begun in Oslo five years ago break down completely. Because of the persistence of terrorist bombings against Israel and the belligerence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, little trust exists between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That explains the crucial and expanded role played by the United States over the last year-and-a-half. Moreover, both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat face severe and even potentially violent opposition within their own ranks. As many observers note, the price for making peace in the Middle East, for both Israelis and Palestinians, is often violent death. In short, despite the modest nature of what Netanyahu and Arafat agreed to in what is called the Wye Memorandum, much was on the line.

News reports detailing the volatile and contentious nine-day negotiation confirm the obvious: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu committed his right-wing government to Oslo’s fundamental principle of land-for-peace only after making what seemed like every effort to scuttle the process. Netanyahu’s last-minute attempt at blackmail in demanding that the United States release the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard epitomized the prime minister’s overall strategy. Nevertheless, a compliant and evidently imperturbable Yasir Arafat, and a determined and resourceful American team of negotiators led by President Bill Clinton, defused Netanyahu’s singular combination of bluster, political timidity, and personal ambition. King Hussein of Jordan, brought to Wye at the last moment and visibly suffering from the effects of treatment for cancer, introduced a note of eloquent and sober realism to the discussions. As a result, the Wye Memorandum, despite its more worrisome details-especially the expanded role envisioned for the Central Intelligence Agency-did achieve at least one significant breakthrough. Netanyahu, backed by his hawkish foreign minister Arik Sharon, has publicly signed on to the Oslo process. He will now have a political and personal stake in its success. And in finally committing himself to the land-for-peace principle, Netanyahu has also turned away from an important segment of his own political coalition, one that continues to believe in a so-called greater Israel and refuses to contemplate peaceful coexistence with an independent Palestinian people. Netanyahu’s decision was obviously a political gamble he thinks he can win, but it was still a gamble.

In agreeing finally to fulfill the Israeli promise at Oslo to turn over another 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu received commitments from Arafat that the Authority would (1) remove language in the PLO covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, and (2) clamp down on terrorist groups, such as Hamas, that continue to operate from Palestinian territory. Unwilling to trust Palestinian assurances, Netanyahu insisted that the CIA monitor and verify the Authority’s antiterrorist efforts, and this Arafat also agreed to. (Given his own political vulnerability, to what extent Arafat can deliver on antiterrorist promises is also a legitimate question.) Placing the CIA in the middle of such an inherently difficult and politically delicate situation is fraught with risks. It is, in short, almost a certain recipe for turning the United States into an object of mutual Palestinian and Israeli mistrust. It is clear, however, that guaranteeing Palestinian antiterrorist efforts was the linchpin of the agreement, and hands-on U.S. involvement had become a necessity.

In return for Palestinian cooperation, the Israelis will release more than 700 political prisoners, will guarantee safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, and will permit the opening of an airport in Gaza. Most important of all, the Wye Memorandum keeps Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the path to the final-status negotiations promised in the original Oslo accords.

It is almost certain that extremists on both sides will try to sabotage the Wye agreement by resorting to terrorism or assassination. Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas, was defiant: ’It is an illusion to think the agreement will put an end to our military activity.’ Right-wing Israelis have issued only slightly more veiled warnings. It will take courage and fortitude-and yes, even some trust-on both sides if the promise of peace envisioned in Oslo is ever to come to fruition. However, the alternative to peace-the continued disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people and a bloodier Israeli occupation-is no real alternative at all. The road to liberation, for both Palestinians and Israelis, leads in only one direction and has to be walked in small steps. The Wye Memorandum was one such step.

Published in the 1998-11-06 issue: 
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