The Middle East’s Moment of Truth

JERUSALEM: Whatever the outcome of the summit convened by President Clinton at Camp David between Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and PLO Chairman Yassar Arafat, one thing is clear: the moment of truth for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations has arrived. Defections from Prime Minister Barak’s government and coalition, including the resignation of his foreign minister, David Levy, who refused to accompany Barak to Washington, will make the negotiations even more dramatic.

Israel and the Palestinians have been negotiating since 1995, when they signed the Oslo Accords whose major achievement was mutual recognition and autonomy in areas of the West Bank and Gaza for the Palestinians. Further negotiations were to decide the final status of the Palestinian Authority (ie, whether Palestine is to be an independent state), the border issue, the future of Jewish settlements, whether refugees could return to their homes, and the final status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital but which Israel controls in its entirety.

According to a series of agreements signed over the years within this framework, a Palestinian Authority, with Yassar Arafat as its head, was established. Arafat returned from exile in Tunis to Gaza, and Israel turned over to the Palestinian Authority most of Gaza and most of the towns in the West Bank. Today, although the Palestinian Authority controls less than 30% of the West Bank and Gaza, over 80% of Palestinians in these territories live under Palestinian rule, free from Israeli military occupation. A Palestinian legislature and cabinet have opened, as well as Palestinian police and security services. The economy in areas under Palestinian control is administered by the Palestinian Authority, as are education and other internal matters. While economic results are mixed, the most important change in the daily life of Palestinians is that most no longer live under Israeli rule.

Yet Jewish settlements, built mainly under the right-wing governments of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu, remain in place, and relations between settlers - some of them extremely radical nationalists - and Palestinians remain raw. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a nationalist-religious extremist Jewish student slowed the peace process, especially after Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 1996. But in 1999 Ehud Barak, Labour’s leader, was elected Prime Minister in a sweeping personal victory that restored momentum to the peace negotiations.