The Jerusalem Post Editorial, December, 24 2001

NEGOTIATING UNDER FIRE

The stage was set. For the first time, after over a year of terrorist attacks and broken cease-fires, the United States finally came to the conclusion that the only solution is to support Israel in the fight against terrorism. The US decision led to unprecedented European and Arab pressure to take action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

As a result of the pressure, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat publicly called for an end to suicide bombings and mortar attacks, and stated that all Palestinian forces must be under his authority. Arafat's forces made some arrests, and the rate of attacks seems to have gone down.

At the same time, the entire Palestinian terrorist apparatus remains essentially intact, Arafat did not call for an end to the intifada, and Fatah spokesmen insist Arafat did not prohibit terrorism against Israelis in the territories or attacks on soldiers.

In short, substantial progress had been made toward forcing Arafat into the choice that faced the late Taliban regime - either stop harboring terrorists or lose power. Unless the United States decided to fall back on the failed policy of evenhandedness that US President George W. Bush had clearly rejected, it seemed that nothing could save Arafat from the moment of truth that lay ahead. Nothing, it seems, except Israel's own Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Now we find out that Peres has reportedly been negotiating a deal with Palestinian leaders, apparently with the knowledge of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to recognize a Palestinian state and return to final-status negotiations.

It would not be particularly useful to dissect this reported draft non-agreement in detail. But it is already clear that there is a blatant contradiction between the first point of the alleged agreement and the statement issued yesterday by the Prime Minister's Office.

According to that statement, "the entire cabinet decided that the State of Israel will not conduct diplomatic negotiations" until five conditions are met: 1) terrorists are arrested; 2) illegal weapons are collected and turned over to the US; 3) terrorist organizations are dismantled and their leaders arrested; 4) effective counterterrorist operations are taken; and 5) incitement ceases. According to Peres's reported plan, most of these are not preconditions to negotiations, but part of a six-week period in which Israel would end its closures, freeze settlement growth, and transfer funds to the Palestinians.

For months now, Israel has been steadfastly insisting there would be no negotiations under fire. When Sharon visited Bush in Washington before September 11, Israelis bristled at the implication that the Mitchell timeline would be implemented based on the "progress" the US thought it detected at that time.

Now, in contrast, there is no US pressure to negotiate with Arafat based on empty promises, and even the Europeans have demanded that Arafat dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Peres has no patience for Israel's demands or cabinet decisions. To Peres, evidently, the principle of not negotiating under fire is meaningless - a triviality to be ignored.

We have seen this movie before, with most of the same actors playing the same roles. Peres produced the Oslo agreement behind Yitzhak Rabin's back and presented him with what was largely a fait accompli. Sharon swore he would let neither Arafat nor Peres fool him, but he seems to have walked into the same trap. Sharon, like Rabin, seems to have been tempted by the same logic: let Peres negotiate, my options are open at all times.

The problem is not just that Peres led Israel down such a primrose path before, but that this time a shooting war is going on. The refusal to negotiate under fire was not just an empty slogan; it was the whole reason this government was elected. Sharon was swept into power because Israelis realized that it was suicidal for Israel to make concessions under fire, because there would be no end to either the fire or the concessions.

The current editorial on the Fatah Web site (www.fateh.net) explains how international pressure increased on Arafat after the "Dolphinarium retaliatory operation," and that it increased further after the recent "explosions" in Jerusalem and Haifa. Following these massacres, Arafat's Fatah argues that a strategy is needed to "help us restore the full support of the international community for our rights [including the 'right of return']."

The editorial is careful to explain, however, that "the intifada is not a tool for returning to the negotiating table; it should accompany any future negotiations to enhance the position of Palestinian negotiators." The Palestinians, in other words, reserve the right to continue terrorism against Israel as long as their "rights" have not been achieved, including the "right" to force Israel to commit suicide. Given that the US is no longer pressing Israel to negotiate under such circumstances, it is incomprehensible why the Sharon government would volunteer to do so.

(c) Jerusalem Post



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