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2000 In Review: Hope And Despair In The Middle East

  • Lisa McAdams

It's been a year of highs and lows for the Middle East peace process, but as the year ends there is little ground for optimism. RFE/RL's correspondent Lisa McAdams reports on what happened to the peace that earlier appeared to be within grasp, and where the parties go from here.

Washington, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) - The year 2000 was supposed to have been the year when the U.S.- moderated Mideast peace process finally bore fruit.

While few people expected all of the problems would be solved by year-end, there was ample reason for optimism that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would be discussing "final status" issues and that the peace would be holding. There was even talk that a long-held Palestinian dream of statehood might be realized.

But a bloody return to violence this autumn that led to more than 300 deaths, most of them Palestinian, has dashed hopes for peace any time soon.

The immediate cause of the unrest was a visit in September by Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque, which Muslims consider the third- most-holy site in the world. The Palestinians viewed Sharon's visit as a "provocation."

But the turning point appears to have been the failure -- after holding out so much promise -- of the Camp David summit in July at a U.S. presidential retreat outside Washington.

The host of the talks, U.S. president Bill Clinton, was optimistic - - some say, overly optimistic -- that progress could be made.

Clinton's warning at the start of the talks of the consequences of failure seem prophetic in hindsight:

"If the parties do not seize this moment, if they cannot make progress now, there will be more hostility and more bitterness, perhaps even more violence. And to what end? Eventually, after more bloodshed and tears, they will have to come back to the negotiating table."

Reports indicate that during the Camp David negotiations the two sides made significant progress toward signing a final peace agreement, even more than publicly acknowledged.

But the final status of Jerusalem, which both sides see as intrinsic to their territory, proved to be a sticking point. Despite concessions at the summit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat rejected the Israeli offer.

Some observers see a link between the failure of the Camp David talks and the outburst of violence just a couple of months later.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote recently in the "Washington Post" that linking the territorial disputes to the holy places -- as well as the U.S. focus on finality -- proved the principal obstacle to a peace agreement. Kissinger characterizes the U.S. approach as "delusional."

Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, agrees. He says the U.S. engaged in "wishful thinking" in the Middle East at almost every juncture of the peace process:

"One of the problems was at the Camp David Summit last July. I think the Administration pushed too hard to resolve all the issues and tie it up into a big bundle that would help protect the Clinton legacy in the Middle East. Arafat indicated he was not able to make a compromise in Jerusalem because that would make nerves raw. But despite this, the Administration went ahead and tried to force resolution of that issue and this raised tensions. I think it would have been better if the summit hadn't been held at all -- than held and failed."

Phillips says the biggest misconception on the part of the Clinton Administration, and perhaps also of Israel, was the belief that peace can be achieved through a document in a period of months. Too many antagonisms and causes for misunderstanding have developed over the years, and these will not be eliminated easily.

"I think it will take years probably -- at least a generation -- for real peace to come to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that's going to involve a change in the education of young Arabs who are coming up through the school system. And today in the Palestinian schools, young students are taught that it is acceptable to conduct terrorism against Israelis."

For their part, the Palestinians say Israeli textbooks present a skewed view of the Palestinian people and portray them as having no rights in their own land.

By October, just three months after Camp David and after the initial outbursts of violence, Clinton called the two sides back to the negotiating table for an "emergency summit" -- this time in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But this summit was no more successful than the first.

The violence escalated in November and December, with no end in sight as the year draws to a close.

Looking to next year, it's difficult to see if and how the process can continue.

Israel and the Palestinians are now urging Russia to take a more active role in brokering peace than it has done in recent years. Moscow, along with the U.S., is a co-sponsor of the peace process, but it was not represented at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

In late November, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Arafat a message reasserting Russian support for a separate Palestinian state and a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East. Putin's message came after he met Arafat in Moscow and brokered a three-way telephone call between Arafat, the Kremlin and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The UN Security Council is also considering a resolution calling for a 2,000-strong unarmed military force to protect Palestinians in disputed areas of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. The Palestinians and their supporters introduced the resolution. Later, the British and French suggested a compromise, but that was rejected by Israel and greeted coolly by the Palestinians. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says any mission would need the consent of both Israelis and Palestinians.

U.S. officials, for their part, say they can only mediate a peace process and that it is up to the parties themselves to do the hard work. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated what actions the U.S. is looking for from each side:

"For the Palestinian Authority, this means ending shootings against Israelis, creating buffers between demonstrators and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), ending incitement to violence and arresting those responsible for terrorism, regardless of which organization they belong. For the Israelis, this means withdrawing their forces to positions prior to the onset of the crisis, ending the economic restrictions against Palestinians and restraining their use of force."

It's not clear how the new Republican Administration of George W. Bush will approach the peace process. Israel also holds new elections next year, bringing an extra measure of uncertainty.

The Heritage Foundation's Phillips says, unfortunately, there is what he calls "very little momentum" now for peace in the Middle East. At best, he says, all the U.S. can hope for as the clock runs out on the year is some kind of partial agreement that reduces the immediate points of friction.