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Middle East: Why Agreeing On Wye Is So Difficult

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have had a tough time agreeing on implementing the Wye accord despite a new Israeli government. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel explains why negotiations are still going on even as both sides have said they might sign an agreement in Egypt today.

Prague, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is in Egypt today on a visit Israeli and Palestinian officials have said could see them recommitting to the Wye accord in her and the Egyptian president's presence.

But up to the last moment, it remains unclear whether the two sides can reach a final accord in time for any signing ceremony in Alexandria today.

Analysts say that last-minute uncertainty is a measure of the enormous difficulties both the Israelis and Palestinian have had in agreeing on how to implement last year's Wye River accord, despite clear expectations from Washington that they now finally do so.

That expectation, symbolized by Albright's presence in the Mideast today, has grown since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's May election on promises to speed the peace process after years of slowdown under Benjamin Netanyahu.

But despite Barak's stated desire to find new accommodations with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians' own welcoming of Barak as their peace partner, the negotiating over Wye River's details has been tough and protracted.

Analysts say the reason is that implementation of the Wye accord calls on both sides to make difficult compromises to reach a common ground. Frederick Tanner is deputy director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Geneva, Switzerland. He told RFE/RL that both the Israelis and the Palestinians see red lines in the accord they feel they cannot cross.

"Like any negotiations, [these] are very much for domestic consumption. And there are a lot of domestic problems, not just problems with the Palestinians but also problems within Israel, which are very much present in these negotiations."

Tanner says the problem for Barak has been to reach a deal which the Israeli public will live with, particularly on the timing of the withdrawals on the West Bank. Barak has sought to extend the timetable as long as possible so as not to create an immediate backlash from hard-liners. But the Palestinians want implementation immediately for fear their gains under the Wye accord will got lost in negotiations over the larger peace process. That has made it difficult for either side to be very flexible.

Barak and the Palestinians re-launched talks on implementing the Wye accord a month after the new Israeli prime minister took office. But they immediately fell into bitter disputes over the accord's toughest open questions. Those are when the Israelis should withdraw from the West Bank and how many Palestinian prisoners should be released in exchange for new Palestinian security commitments.

As it was originally conceived, last year's Wye accord provided for a three-stage Israeli withdrawal from a further 13 percent of the West Bank, matched by a series of Palestinian security steps. It also included an unwritten agreement by Israel to free 750 Palestinian prisoners from its jails in three stages.

But the accord, signed by Netanyahu and Arafat in Washington last October, has been bedeviled by difficulties from the outset.

Netanyahu enraged Palestinians by including a majority of common prisoners in a first round release of 250 prisoners and by insisting that Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militants who had been involved in attacks on Israelis would stay in jail.

At the same time, Netanyahu came under attack by hard-liners in his own government coalition for going ahead with a first-round pullback from two percent of the West Bank.

The hard-line resistance grew so great that it finally led to the fall of Netanyahu's government even after he suspended further implementation of the accord.

Barak's negotiators and the Palestinians have had better luck in narrowing their areas of disagreement but their negotiations, too, have been stormy.

Initially, the Barak team said Israeli would free fewer than 500 more prisoners while the Palestinians demanded 650 in compensation for Netanyahu's first-round release. The gap has grown smaller over the last days, but the two sides still remain some 50 prisoners apart largely due to Barak's insisting he will not release anyone who has killed Israelis. Meanwhile, a proposed prisoner release date of September 1 has passed, and the releases are now likely to take place October 8.

The timing of further Israeli pullbacks on the West Bank has also been fiercely negotiated. The originally planned two further pullbacks now have been extended into three pullbacks instead. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat recently told reporters the two sides have agreed to carry out the withdrawals early this month, in mid-November and early next year, although the Palestinians originally sought earlier dates.

That hard-reached middle ground may still not be narrow enough for the two sides to announce they have reached full agreement today. But analysts say it is almost certain that they will sign an accord soon, most likely before Albright leaves the Middle East on Sunday. Frederick Tanner says:

"We can probably expect that the arrival of Albright in the region is some kind of artificial deadline, a deadline to get an agreement. I think we have seen in the last few days a frenzy of back-and-forth, which was a clear sign that something should be done before the Americans show up."

Albright is due to continue on from Egypt to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories tomorrow. She then visits Syria on Saturday and Jordan on Sunday before leaving for Asia.

Once implemented, the Wye river accord will give the Palestinian Authority full or partial control over about 40 percent of the West Bank and rule over some 98 percent of the Palestinians living there.

But it still leaves the toughest problems in Israeli-Palestinian relations to be resolved in future, far more difficult, negotiations. Those are the so-called final status issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem, which must accompany any permanent settlement between the two sides.

When those talks might begin, and how long they could last, remains for now a completely open question.