Losing faith

The View from the East

By DAOUD KUTTAB

(September 10) - President Bill Clinton did well by remembering the existence of the Middle East conflict and dispatching his peace envoy to the area. But Mr. Clinton is wrong if he thinks that this is all it takes to produce a breakthrough in the peace process.

Time is not on the side of peace. Palestinians are pessimistic about the success of the latest Ross mission.

After all, this is not his first visit to the area, and no tangible change has taken place since his last visit four months ago.

Almost a year ago, and after well-calculated planning and thought, the Americans suggested a compromise deal that they felt was fair to both sides.

Palestinians were told that this was a package deal, and that neither side could make any changes to it. The Palestinian leadership accepted the plan.

Israel's rejection came in the form of trying to make changes. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned both sides that the US would publicizes the plan and would tell the world who is holding up its implementation.

That threat has never been carried out. Instead, the Americans came with an old, overused Israeli idea. All that is needed to bring about peace in the Middle East, they argued, is for the parties to talk face to face.

As expected, this naive American idea of leaving Palestinians and Israelis to work out their problems has failed. After all if Israelis would not yield to their American allies why would they yield to the Palestinians? In a conflict with such a lopsided balance of power, such an idea was doomed to fail, or have the weak side capitulate to the other. Ross's return is an admission of this idea's failure.

Now that the political ball is back in the US court, what will the Clinton administration do?

To begin with, Clinton needs to decide whether he is willing to pay the political price for doing what it takes to bring forth a resolution.

The time is ripe, the gap between the parties is narrow and the White House can sure use some good news.

The idea of a package deal must be made clear. If it is negotiable, then both sides should be allowed to renegotiate. If not, then both sides must be told in no uncertain terms that this is it. Giving one side the opportunity to open up the deal has been a terrible mistake. It is either a package deal or we are back to square one and everyone side can submit its demands.

The balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians should not be allowed to influence US policy.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians reluctantly accepted this suggestion as a way to move the process forward. Apparently by holding out, the Israelis were able to try to make changes to the original plan. Being the stronger party, the Americans were unable, or rather unwilling, to stop this heavy-handed Israeli tactic.

The result has been that Palestinians have refused any changes in the deal they agreed upon. The public gets the impression that Palestinians are intransigent and the Israeli are seen as flexible, throwing in new ideas every time. The reality is the opposite.

Finally, the Clinton administration and Israel must remember the human factor. Five years after the beginning of Oslo, some of the most vocal supporters of it have been unable to continue to defend it.

The average Palestinian today is utterly frustrated by the entire process. Simple things like a Gaza-West Bank free passage road have yet to be opened.

Thousands of students and family members have been unable to make the journey between these two locations defined in the Oslo Agreement as one geographic unit. Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes has reached unprecedented heights with rarely an international criticism. East Jerusalem has become like a foreign city to most Palestinians as the entry to the city continues to be forbidden without a permit. An apartheid-like situation is taking legal cover as Israeli settlers fall under different laws than Palestinians living in the same geographic area. The settlers have the freedom to travel, they pay less for water and electricity and are treated differently by the Israeli police than Palestinians.

It is no wonder that the average Palestinian has lost faith in peace, in the Americans, the Israelis and even in their own national authority. Time is certainly not on the side of peace, despite the artificial relative quiet. www.amin.org/pages/dkuttab/index.htm