THE GLOW of success that greeted the Mideast accord negotiated in nine grueling days in late October at the Wye Plantation in rural Maryland is fading fast. As widely predicted, implementation of the accord’s many requirements is in jeopardy as a consequence of mutual mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, suicide bombers and leaders more intent on encouraging confrontation than compromise.
Yet it would be premature to write off what was accomplished at Wye. It would also be a waste. The agreement provides a useful road map for the current phase of diplomacy – territorial returns by Israel, enhanced security for Israel, elimination of those clauses in the Palestinian charter calling for Israel’s destruction – and also initiates “final status” negotiations designed to settle the issues basic to peace, including Palestinian statehood, land, water, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem.
In addition, the Wye accord has a political significance that transcends its specific terms. A center-right Israeli prime minister has signed an agreement that implements undertakings entered into by the previous center-left government. By so doing, he created a substantial majority within Israel prepared to offer territorial concessions to Palestinians in exchange for peace and security. The goal for everyone – Israelis, Palestinians, other Arab leaders and American – should be to bolster this Israeli majority that favors responsible peace-making, one that encourages Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to proceed with what was negotiated at Wye.
This being the Mideast, however, progress will not just happen. Good things will happen only if people on all sides do their part. Here is a work plan for the principal protagonists:
Netanyahu: The prime minister confounded many of his critics with his flexibility at Wye. The challenge for him is to rein in, not to give in to, those Israeli forces that seek to undermine Wye through violence or provocative actions such as new settlement or housing construction in contested areas.
Israel’s Labor Party: It is essential that Israelis not go to the polls now. The opposition Labor Party has agreed not to undermine a government deserted by its own far-right supporters. The resulting arrangement – a de facto government of national unity – should be allowed to continue in place until Wye is fully implemented. Then Israelis can vote amid a debate over core final-status issues.
Yasser Arafat: The Palestinian leader needs to implement Wye to the fullest and not provide any reason or excuse for Netanyahu to backtrack. Cracking down on Hamas and other groups that seek to undermine negotiations through terror is a sine qua non. Arafat also needs to avoid inflammatory language such as recent statements threatening to declare a separate state or revive the Palestinian intifada “uprising.”
Hosni Mubarak: Egypt’s president and his foreign minister have been quick to criticize Israel’s prime minister over the past few years. Meanwhile, the cold peace between Egypt and Israel has grown colder. Mubarak should be urged to follow the lead of Jordan’s King Hussein and reach out to Netanyahu at a time when he is being challenged at home for giving up too much for peace. Mubarak has visited Israel only to mourn Yitzhak Rabin, a slain prime minister; now is the time for him to visit Israel to assist a serving one.
Bill Clinton: The Wye deal represents many of the strengths and weaknesses of this president. Like the smart but undisciplined student who cuts class all semester and then pulls an all-nighter just before final exams, Bill Clinton allowed American policy toward the Mideast to drift. At Wye, he devoted more hours to promoting reconciliation than he had in the preceding 18 months. What is needed now is regular follow-up by the president – not just to ensure implementation of the Wye accords over coming months in the face of inevitable violence and problems, but also to make sure that final-status talks not only get under way, but make progress.
All of the above needs to be undertaken against a backdrop of May 4, 1999, the date set five years ago for the completion of final-status talks. No one expects negotiations to be concluded by then, but that is not necessary. What is necessary, however, is that the Wye accords be implemented and that final-status talks begin and show enough promise so that Arafat can hold off declaring a Palestinian state. Such a unilateral act would likely lead to unilateral Israeli acts, including annexations of land, triggering a violent confrontation between the two sides.
The goal is thus clear: to help the parties get past May 4, 1999, without a major crisis that could derail the peace process. If this is accomplished, the next objective should be to persuade the parties to return to Wye in two years to address – and, where possible, resolve – the difficult final-status issues. For the Mideast, and computers everywhere notwithstanding, this promises to be the real Wye 2K challenge.