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Commentary : A Peace-Signing Party Without Purpose : Middle East: In the current fragile climate, it's preposterous to celebrate the second-stage agreement at the White House.

September 04, 1995|AKIVA ELDAR | Akiva Eldar is Washington bureau chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz

The Clinton Administration is insisting that the upcoming signing of the agreement on the long-awaited second stage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process merits another party on the White House lawn. Just in case the stars of the hour, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat feel a little uncomfortable together, the White House producers have invited King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The event, being planned for later this month, is supposed to raise the temperature of the chilly negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. A signing ceremony, the White House contends, will provide a much-needed boost to the supporters of peace in both communities, rebuke their opponents and temper those members of Congress who oppose U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Administration officials add that the festivities may even persuade the international community to deposit a little extra cash in the dwindling accounts of the Palestinian Authority.

It is difficult to imagine someone actually believing that raising glasses at the White House will diminish, even in the slightest, the opposition of large segments of the Israeli population to the transfer of responsibility for security in the occupied West Bank to the Palestinian police. Nor will a glitzy ceremony in the Rose Garden improve the mood of Gaza's unemployed. On the contrary, it may serve to sharpen the criticism by Hamas that Arafat is deaf to the suffering of his people. Will a Bill Clinton handshake narrow the gap on the arguments over Jerusalem, Jewish settlement in Hebron, or Israel's request for the extradition of terrorists who escaped to the territory of the Palestinian Authority? And will an invitation to this flamboyant ceremony convert in one fell swoop the members of Congress who are indisposed to opening the U.S. Treasury for Arafat?

The expectations that have risen around the half-baked celebration of peace only add to the difficulty of already complicated negotiations. Another ceremony, held far from the scene of constant anxieties, attacks and prosaic concessions may actually increase the alienation of leaders from their publics. The empty space of the Syrian representation in the pew of honored guests will no doubt deepen the isolation of President Hafez Assad, the only participant of the start-upMadrid Conference who will be glaringly absent from the Washington event.

The surprise of the Oslo agreements and the euphoria that accompanied the signing on the South Lawn in September, 1993, cannot be repeated. The governments of Rabin and Clinton mistakenly believed that peace speaks for itself. They abandoned the field to Israel's right wing and its American Jewish allies for whom the deal with the Palestinians is anathema both to their ideological beliefs and their political interests. The New York newspaper, Jewish Press, encourages its readers to call the Embassy of Israel in Washington and the prime minister's office in Jerusalem to protest against the "heinous dictatorship reminiscent of a Nazi period." Jewish militants are skillfully using statements from the president of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who has repeatedly called on the government to reassess its steps.

It is difficult to see what benefit the White House hopes to gain from hosting the signing ceremony in Washington. A photo-opportunity with Rabin and Arafat has already proved to be a very short-term achievement. President Clinton was never involved in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Likewise, the peace treaty with Jordan was reached by the two countries without American interlocution. The Clinton Administration will not garner its credit in foreign policy from Middle East photo-diplomacy, but rather on the basis of the success of its true diplomacy and military involvement in Bosnia and in its ability to rescue relations with China from the nadir to which they have sunk.

After the Aug. 21 suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem, Hamas announced that the bombing was designed to weaken public support for the Rabin government as it approaches an election in November, 1996. The White House is gambling that Hamas does not also intend to influence American politics by embarrassing Clinton and his guests at the height of the party.

The process of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is at a sensitive, vulnerable and painful stage. In this peace process, there are no free parties. Many will still have to pay the price for peace. It is only fitting that the United States and other Western nations do their part to reduce the risks and improve the mood in the region. The right way to express such support for the peace process in the Middle East would be to sign the second stage of the agreement in a modest ceremony in a refugee camp at the crossing station between Israel and Gaza.

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