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Mideast: Camp David Anniversary Receives Little Notice

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Just twenty years ago, Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachim Begin, accompanied by then US president Jimmy Carter, signed the Camp David accords they hoped would begin an era of peace in the Middle East.

Speaking the day after the September 17 signing, Carter hailed the agreements as exceeding the peacemakers' own expectations:

"When we first arrived at Camp David, the first thing upon which we agreed was to ask the people of the world to pray that our negotiations would be successful. Those prayers have been answered far beyond expectations."

The accords set the framework for an Egyptian-Israel peace treaty and gave Palestinians their first assurances they one day would have a self-governing authority.

In the following years, the three leaders' optimism seemed vindicated by signed treaties between Egypt and Israel, between Jordan and Israel, and the creation of limited Palestinian autonomous rule areas under the Oslo accords.

But with each step forward, the peace process has also been dogged by crises, and for the last year and-a-half it has been fully deadlocked.

The Arab states blame the Israeli government, accusing it of ignoring accords and continuing to expand Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in return, links any new peace steps to a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

Currently, the two sides are bickering over a U.S. initiative to restart the peace process which calls on Israel to withdraw its troops from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in return for tougher Palestinian action against Islamic militants.

In a sign of the times, Camp David's 20th anniversary passed almost unnoticed in the Egyptian media. Diaa Rashawan, a researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo explains why:

"There is a very close relationship between the ignoring of the Camp David anniversary and the state of the peace process now ... the Egyptian government and Egyptian people feel that if they make a very great anniversary for the Camp David accords in this context it will be (taken) as an encouragement for Israeli policy."

Instead of celebrating Camp David, Cairo plans a major observance of the 25th anniversary of its October 1973 war with Israel. Egyptians consider the war a victory which led to Israel's returning the Sinai under the Camp David accords. In Israel, peace activists say that many Israelis still consider the Camp David accords the greatest achievement of Israeli foreign policy. But they also say that much of the trust the accords began to build between Arabs and Israelis has since been lost.

Mossi Rez, general secretary of Israel's Peace Now movement:

"The late Egyptian President Mr Anwar Sadat said that 70 percent of the whole conflict between Israel and the Arabs is psychological and I think he is right ... this is exactly the same problem" (again today).

But there are still obstacles to rebuilding trust. Peace talks between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon, are long bogged down and the core cause of friction between Israelis and Arabs -- the Palestinian question -- remains as explosive as ever.

Next year the peace process is likely to get one of its greatest tests yet.

Under current agreements, Israelis and Palestinians were to complete final status negotiations to resolve the status of the Palestinian territories by May.

But so far there is no start to the final negotiations in sight.

With time running out, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has said that if there is no progress he will declare an independent Palestinian state on May 4, 1999, when the five-year interim period of Palestinian autonomy under the Oslo accords expires

Netanyahu has responded with an ultimatum of his own. He has promised that Israel will take unilateral action if Arafat goes ahead with independence.

(This is the first in a series of five stories on the Middle East today. It deals with the difficult path to peace in the region. Two subsequent articles look at economic issues, particularly Egypt and Lebanon, as well as the oil-based economies of the Persian Gulf. The fourth deals with the environment of a region with much oil but little water, and the fifth and final story looks at trends in modern Arab literature.)