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The Coming Test

There is no question that in the aftermath of the IDF’s operation in Beit Hanoun, the Bush Administration has stepped up its involvement in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. President Bush is reportedly making telephone calls to Prime Minister Sharon and others are apparently in regular contact with Israeli and Palestinian officials. This, together with the intense focus on the so-called Jordan-Egypt Plan, which publicly has Arafat’s only tentative blessing, strongly suggests to some that things are starting to move. Indeed, some argue that these developments, and Arafat’s arrest of some mortar-shell shooters and call for the resumption of security talks, are signs that Arafat may have finally gotten the message that violence will not get him anything further. We, on the other hand, see this more as a test of President Bush’s commitment to facilitate negotiations rather than apply pressure for a certain outcome.

Israel’s clearly stated position is that substantive negotiations cannot begin until there is a total and sustained cessation of Palestinian violence. In addition, Prime Minister Sharon is on record saying that the focus of discussions, when they are resumed, must be on achievable interim agreements rather than on a final status pact which he thinks is unachievable at this time. Sharon is also adamant that there be no restrictions on the expansion of settlements. And as a procedural matter, he insists that the rule of reciprocity be strictly applied.

On the other hand, the Jordan-Egyptian proposals essentially incorporate the Palestinian position. Thus, as outlined recently in The Jerusalem Post, they treat the issue of violence as part of a package together with other substantive issues and even then, speak of both sides taking steps to ‘reduce’ the fighting. Other issues on the list are that Israel is to immediately generally abandon military and economic policies adopted vis-a-vis the Palestinians since the start of the Intifada; the IDF is to withdraw to positions it held before the outbreak of the Intifada; Israel is to transfer revenues it has held up to the Palestinian Authority; there is to be a total and immediate freeze on settlement activities; the negotiations are to pick up where they left off at Camp David; there is to be a deadline set for the reaching of a final status agreement; and the European Union, UN Security Council, Jordan and Egypt are to supervise implementation of the entire process.

Plainly, the plan is just a rehash of the Palestinian agenda and not a serious basis for discussion. We trust that President Bush will see it for what it is: simply a trial balloon to entice the U.S. to resume the Clintonian pressure on Israel to make concessions in return for unfulfilled, recycled Palestinian promises.

President Bush can make an important contribution to achieving peace in the Middle East if he makes it plain to Arafat & Co. that as far as America is concerned, the cessation of violence is a precondition to any consideration of substantive issues; reciprocity will be the rule rather than the exception; and that the US really has no intention of playing the role of driving force in any future negotiations or agreeing to any other outside force playing that role.

The only road to peace is through Yassir Arafat’s recognition that there will be no possibility of an end run around Israel on President Bush’s watch.

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