Israel and the PLO

Israel and the PLO

In mid-April 2000, Barak shifted his attention from the stalled process with Syria to a new effort focused on the Palestinians and began to prepare the Israeli public for both negotiations with the Palestinians and potential concessions to them. These talks were essentially stalemated when Barak took office in 1999, as little had occurred in the Netanyahu tenure.

Barak’s election as prime minister revived hopes for advances in the peace process and was followed by substantial optimistic talk. Barak continued to reiterate his government’s promise to stand by the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998.

Nevertheless, he soon suggested that he would prefer to delay implementation of the agreement and move directly into final status discussions that were to arrive at settlement of all outstanding issues and potentially lay foundations for an independent Palestinian state. In a joint press conference with President Mubarak of Egypt in Alexandria, Egypt, on July 9, 1999, Barak, with characteristic confidence and bravado, noted, “If peace is to be achieved in the Middle East, we will achieve it.”

The peace negotiations began soon after Barak’s formation of his government. His travel to Washington, D.C., in July 1999, the establishment of new negotiating teams for Israel, and his indefatigable efforts to move the process forward became commonplace. The expired deadline of May 4, 1999, was replaced by various new target dates established by Barak and Arafat. Some progress was made, although it was usually followed by regression.

By the summer of 2000, a year after Barak’s accession to power, the process had reached a critical juncture. It was with that in mind that Barak and Clinton agreed that a summit meeting at Camp David, in the United States, might be an appropriate next step toward an accord.

The Palestinians wanted all the territory that Jordan and Egypt had lost to Israel in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the Six-Day War, Jerusalem as their capital, the right of return of refugees, and full sovereignty. A majority of the Israeli government and a majority of Israelis believed that Jerusalem was not negotiable. Most Israelis also did not foresee the return to Israel of any sizable number of Arab refugees. And many Israelis believed that a Palestinian state would eventually exist, but that it should be restricted in its powers.

Barak was apparently pleased by the decision to convene the summit, since he had sought the meeting for some time and believed that it could serve to hold his divided government together. He thought that it could also revive the momentum of the negotiating process and that the time was appropriate to convene such a summit. Barak believed that a top level, U.S.-brokered negotiating session was crucial.

U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright traveled to the Middle East in June 2000 to assess the prospects for a summit. She reported that Barak and Arafat remained too far apart on the core issues for a summit to be successful. Nevertheless, in early July 2000, Clinton called for a summit. Recognizing that this move would carry with it various perils, Clinton wrote in a guest essay in Newsweek, that “while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have made real progress, the most complex and sensitive issues are still unresolved.

Success now depends on decisions only the two leaders can make. . . . If the parties do not seize this moment to make more progress, there will be more hostility and more bitterness—perhaps even more violence.” Barak and Arafat accepted Clinton’s summit invitation, and the talks were to be held in the secluded presidential retreat (Camp David) in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, beginning on July 11.

Barak’s position was tenuous. In the days preceding his departure for the summit, Barak’s coalition partners deserted him and then sought to obtain a Knesset vote of no confidence in his government because they feared he might make unacceptable, far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.

Shas, his biggest coalition partner, with 17 seats in the Knesset, withdrew along with the NRP. Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, head of the Soviet immigrant party yisrael B’Aliya, resigned and Barak thereby lost four more seats. In total, nearly half of his ministers resigned.

The opposition failed to achieve a no-confidence vote of 61 needed to topple his government even though the motion gained 54 votes to 52 for Barak. Seven Knesset members abstained, and seven were absent. A second attempt was postponed. The government did not fall, although the coalition had collapsed, and Barak left the country with only about one-third of the Knesset’s support.

Another test for Barak came when President Ezer Weizman resigned on July 10, a day before the summit was to begin. In early April, Israeli police had announced that an investigation of the president concluded that he had committed fraud and breach of trust by accepting unreported funds and favors from two private businessmen, but Weizman could not be indicted because of the statute of limitations.

Barak sought to allay fears about concessions. At a predeparture airport ceremony on July 10, he suggested, “The choice is between a peace of the brave and, heaven forbid, a violent confrontation that will cause suffering and will not solve anything.” He added:

If there is an agreement, it will only be one that will comply with the principles to which I have committed myself before I was elected, and principles that I have consistently and repeatedly stressed: a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty; the ’67 borders will be amended; the overwhelming majority of the settlers in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip will be in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty; no foreign army in the entire area west of the Jordan River; and a solution of the problem of refugees outside Israeli sovereign territory.