Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s cozy late-night dinner with Yasser Arafat and some of the Palestinian leaders’ top aides at a private home near Tel Aviv came as a pleasant surprise to Middle East peace watchers.
Even Foreign Minister David Levy’s public irritation at not having been informed, let alone invited, to the Sept. 16 soiree could not cloud a sense that the new Israeli prime minister is moving to thaw the long-frozen relations between the two sides and to re-establish some of the trust and personal chemistry that prevailed after the first Oslo accord was signed in 1993.
The Palestinians and the wider Arab world could not help but be struck by the deliberate drama and intimacy of the encounter. Arafat has made it a point to hardly ever cross into Israel. Formal negotiations involving him are conducted either in Egypt or at the Erez checkpoint that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip.
But Barak was targeting not the Arab world but Israeli public opinion. And not only Israelis hostile to his peace policy — but also his supporters.
For weeks now, before and after Barak and Arafat signed the Wye II land-for-security accord earlier this month in Egypt, voices within the Israeli government have been heard expressing skepticism about Barak’s ambitious timetable for concluding a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The Wye II accord calls for the two sides to conclude a framework agreement on the final-status issues by February and a full accord by Sept. 13, 2000.
Even such prominent peaceniks as Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami have been saying that the timetable is too tight.
More hawkish ministers have said openly that they do not believe nor expect that these targets can be met, and they anticipate a return to “partial” or “step-by-step” peacemaking in which the toughest problems are deferred rather than confronted.
Barak himself has been consistently circumspect on this key question of whether, at last, Israel is preparing to dive into the most intractable final-status issues — Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, final borders — or whether he, too, intends to parlay the permanent-status talks into another open-ended series of nonpermanent arrangements.
On the one hand, Barak’s own election campaign pledges held out the promise of a permanent settlement, “without loose ends,” as he put it, that could become unraveled later and cause renewed conflict.
Barak spoke repeatedly of the need to end a century-long conflict between the two nations.
He spoke — and still speaks — of “separation” between them, which is obvious shorthand for an independent Palestinian state that would live, presumably demilitarized, alongside Israel.
Yet officials in his entourage have recently seen fit to add their voices to those in government who are airing the “interim” option in which the “permanent-status” talks give way to new interim agreements, with some core conflict issues postponed once again.
The unannounced meeting with Arafat may well have been Barak’s way of signaling, to the skeptics in his own camp as much as to his political opponents at home and his negotiating partners abroad, that his original, bold strategy to reach a full peace with the Palestinians is still his policy.
Plainly, the only way to cut through the daunting core issues is by direct and personal negotiations at the top.
U.S. officials have raised the idea of a new Camp David-like retreat in February to clinch a framework agreement.
But Barak showed by his invitation to Arafat that he wants top-level discussions on an ongoing basis and available more easily and more frequently than Washington has in mind.