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A Tainted Peace

The closer Israelis and Palestinians get to final-status talks, the farther they seem from genuine accord.

October 25, 1998|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who writes on Palestinian-Israeli affairs for the New Yorker and the Nation, is currently working on a novel about Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — The Dome of the Rock has seasons, unlike other monuments. In the fall, this oldest extant Muslim house of worship, which has come to symbolize Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, begins to lose its golden sheen. This is the time of dust storms and desert winds, and the Dome, which shines like a second sun in spring, after the rainy season comes to an end, looks as if the desert is beginning to cover it over.

The dome is dirty and, indeed, everything seems tainted in Israel and the territories now, after the talks at Wye Plantation, where the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans met last week to build a ladder to peace, rung by rung. All the dramatis personae seemed corrupted.

How about former liberation meister Yasser Arafat? He wheeled around on his bike at Wye, agreeing that, if it were ever proffered, he would shake the hand of Israel's new foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, a key figure in the 1982 massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon. Or King Hussein, ferried in by helicopter from chemotherapy in Minnesota, a literal deus ex machina, to break the deadlock. The Jordanian monarch has compromised with Israel so often that he has alienated his country's large Palestinian population, and he also managed to anger the Americans when he sided with Iraq during the Gulf War. What could he have possibly told Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu that these two foxes didn't already know? And then, among the tainted, there is Bill Clinton, of course.

Why, you can't even find an untainted terrorist anymore! A pious father of five, the young Hamas militant who tossed two grenades into a crowd of Israeli soldiers at the Beersheba bus station last week turns out to have been recruited two months earlier as an informer for Israeli intelligence--not that this means he ever actually worked for them.

Just to see this particular and peculiar group of people sitting around a basket of roses in their plush mauve chairs at the Wye Plantation was enough to create serious cognitive dissonance in anyone who has been watching the peace process since Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel in 1996.

Netanyahu has never behaved as if it were in his political interest to make a just peace with the Palestinians. The prime minister can only have been forced into his awkward position at Wye by the coercive power of the U.S. government and U.S. dollars, and by Arafat's masterful threats to make a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state if he did not get an agreement and get it soon.

Still, tainted is what any negotiation among polarized parties must be. For his right-wing backers, Netanyahu is tainted by the mere act of meeting, much less talking, with Arafat. For a good number of his people, Arafat is tainted by continuing to negotiate with an Israeli leader who is intransigent on almost every issue, or at least a leader who must appear to be so, to appease his own right wing. Poor Netanyahu had to throw his baggage out on the lawn at Wye and threaten to walk out every time he conceded one tiny thing.

Each side realized that this was an endgame, that the last minute had arrived, that they were approaching a finish to Oslo, and if they did not come out of Wye with something, anything, then a historic moment--a moment whose value is questionable, but a historic moment nonetheless--would have been lost. What would come after? That was the scary thing. It's hard to imagine life without Oslo to hope for, without peace to hope for--like life in the old days of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But no matter what piece of paper Wye's guys produce, what remains disturbing for those interested in a lasting peace is the utter lack of good faith on both desperate sides. As they walked through the Wye woods like a coven of wizards, these adversaries were stirring up a macedoine of disaster, an inside-out state, a nonsovereign state.

Everyone at Wye seemed prepared to accept a Palestinian state in which the Palestinian security forces act as extensions of Israeli security, and where access to one part of the new state from another is controlled, or at least closely monitored, by Israel's military. The Wye agreement also states that the CIA will judge whether the Palestinian security and justice apparatus is keeping convicted terrorists in prison. Think of it: The Palestine Liberation Organization accepting the Central Intelligence Agency as the arbiter of internal Palestinian justice.

If all this remains true, and if Israel also continues to expand settlements inside Palestinian territory, the peace the two sides are stuttering toward will be one in which people like the Beersheba bomber feel little compunction about throwing a little TNT into the mix.

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