Crisis Management, Fall 2000
After the failure to reach an agreement at Camp David and with the deteriorating situation in the fall of 2000, efforts were made to achieve some form of crisis management. On October 4, in Paris, the United States brokered attempts to mediate between the parties and end the violence. The talks failed when Arafat did not sign an accord reached verbally between the parties that their respective commanders be given orders to withdraw troops and restore calm to flashpoints under their control. In the meantime, Barak, in a meeting with U.S. secretary of state Albright on the same day, said that a cessation of violence would be a precondition for further negotiations between his government and the Palestinian leadership.
The Israeli-Palestinian crisis threatened to spread across Israel’s other borders. On October 7, Hizballah members abducted three Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon. Under immense pressure to respond, Barak issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the Palestinians to halt their assaults on Israeli military outposts and civilian settlements and threatened to direct the IDF and the security forces to use all means at their disposal to halt the violence if the PA failed to comply.
Tensions came to a peak on October 10 when two Israeli army reservists, apparently having taken a wrong turn in their car, were lynched by a mob in Ramallah, with the complicity of the Palestinian police. The lynching, caught on camera by an Italian film crew and subsequently televised internationally, led the IDF to retaliate by attacking five targets associated with the Palestinian Security Services.
An emergency summit meeting was held on October 16–17 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Clinton and others recognized that tensions and violence between Israel and the Palestinians were spiraling out of control. But, although a general cease-fire understanding was reached, the meeting also demonstrated the overall erosion of the peace process.
Israel and the Palestinians, who had been talking in the summer about final status issues, were now unable even to sign a formal agreement to end the violence that began in September. Direct Israeli-Palestinian talks generally gave way to a process in which Clinton acted as an intermediary. At the end of the summit, Clinton summarized its results. He noted that the primary objective had been to end the violence so that the parties could again resume their efforts toward peace.
To achieve that goal, the parties agreed to issue public statements unequivocally calling for an end to violence. They also agreed to take immediate concrete measures to end the confrontation, eliminate points of friction, and maintain calm. To accomplish this, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to return to the situation that existed prior to the current crisis. The United States agreed to create, with the parties and in consultation with the UN secretary-general, a fact-finding committee on the events of the past weeks and on how to prevent their recurrence.
The commission, led by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, began its inquiries on December 11.On October 20, the UN General Assembly, in an “emergency special session on illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory,” condemned the violence that had taken place in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, since September 28, especially the “excessive use of force by Israeli forces against Palestinian citizens.” This resolution followed a similar Security Council Resolution 1322 adopted on October 7.
On October 22, after a two-day meeting of Arab heads of state in Cairo, a communiqué announced support for the Palestinian uprising and encouraged the suspension of further political and economic links with Israel, while failing to endorse the U.S.-brokered Sharm el-Sheikh cease-fire. The Arab leaders also echoed what had been one of the main Palestinian objectives since the beginning of the violence, namely the internationalization of the conflict beyond the confines of U.S.led diplomacy. In the communiqué, the leaders called upon the UN Security Council to “assume responsibility of providing the necessary protection for the Palestinian people . . . by considering the establishment of an international force or presence for this purpose.”
The Arab summit appeared to be dominated by the more moderate Arab elements. Nevertheless, the tone of the speeches was harshly critical of Israel and of U.S. policy, which they viewed as pro-Israel. The Arab leaders paid homage to those Palestinians killed since the start of the violence. “The Arab leaders confirm that the Aksa intifada erupted as a result of continuing occupation and the Israeli violation of Haram al-Sharif, and the rest of the Islamic and Christian holy sites in the Palestinian land.” At the same time, they identified peace as the preferred and ultimate goal.
Israel, in response, issued a statement in which it expressed its rejection of the threats emanating from the summit and condemned “the call for continued violence.” It called on the Palestinians to honor their commitments to halt the violence and incitement and to restore calm and order immediately.
Reacting to the Arab summit and the failure of the Palestinian side to uphold the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings, Barak called for a “time-out” to reassess the diplomatic process in light of the events of recent weeks. But the call was not unequivocal, and by November, Israeli government representatives reiterated a willingness to resume talks with their Palestinian counterparts, acknowledging that there was no other solution besides diplomacy.
On November 1, hopes for an end to the violence briefly rose when Peres met Arafat at the Gaza-Israel border. After the two-hour meeting, Barak issued a statement, according to which Peres and Arafat reached agreement on a series of steps on the basis of the Sharm el-Sheikh understanding that would lead to the renewal of security cooperation and a halt to the violence and incitement.
Despite the meeting, Arafat did not order an end to the violence. During November, shooting incidents directed at the IDF as well as against Israeli civilians, especially in the Gilo area on the outskirts of Jerusalem, increased, with the Israeli army retaliating systematically. The situation seemed to escalate further when on November 22, a car bomb detonated near a bus in the coastal city of Hadera, killing two Israelis and wounding 60. The IDF chose not to retaliate.
Barak’s strategy was changing as a result of the government’s new political initiatives. In late November, he made new proposals in which he seemed to abandon his quest for an all-inclusive end-of-conflict agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, such as was discussed at Camp David, opting instead for an interim agreement based on the declaration of a Palestinian state. At the same time, under increasing domestic criticism and feeling his prospects were better in a race for prime minister without parliamentary elections, Barak decided on a bold gambit.
On December 9, he unexpectedly announced his resignation (it took effect on December 12), thus setting the stage for new direct elections for prime minister within 60 days. Barak remained in office as head of a caretaker government. Meanwhile violence continued, with gun battles between Israelis and Palestinians becoming a frequent occurrence. Israel adopted a policy of systematic targeted assassination of Palestinian instigators of violence, although it refrained from eliminating leaders within the higher political echelons. Israel described its strategy as striking at those who are “leading the shooting cells and their deputies”; the Palestinians referred to it as “state terrorism.”
In mid-December, efforts to revive peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis were renewed. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami indicated that Israel had dropped its precondition for restarting talks with the Palestinians and would now be willing to negotiate as long as it saw an effort on the Palestinian side to rearrest Islamic militants, clamp down on gunmen, and halt incitement against Israel. Initial meetings in Gaza between Ben-Ami; Gilad Sher, Barak’s chief of staff; and Arafat were fruitless, but a new round of talks was arranged.
On December 23, a five-day discussion at Bolling Air Force Base in washington, D.C., between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ended. Although the sides failed to close a deal, Clinton put forward a comprehensive framework and asked the parties to respond by December 27. Reportedly, this plan included a trade-off: Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for giving up the demand that Palestinian refugees could return to Israel. while Israel accepted the Clinton proposals as a basis for discussion “provided that they become the basis for discussion also for the Palestinians,” the Palestinians failed to provide the United States with an unequivocal answer.
The so-called Clinton Plan was essentially a proposal to bridge the gap between the positions of Israel and of the Palestinians. Barak’s most serious reservation concerned Clinton’s proposal of transferring the Temple Mount plaza and mosques to the Palestinian state that would be established under the final accord. In a cabinet meeting, Barak repeated his pledge “not to sign a document that transfers the Temple Mount to Palestinian sovereignty.” Foreign Minister Ben-Ami, on the other hand, enthusiastically endorsed the U.S. proposal. There were additional concerns relating primarily to the security aspects of the proposal and particularly the important requirement that the Palestinian state be demilitarized.