Leading Article: Baseless optimism for the Middle East

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The Independent Culture
IT IS hard to see why headlines on Palestinian-Israeli relations have suddenly burst into a chorus of hope. All that has been agreed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, is that they will meet again in a couple of weeks. Even according to the most optimistic observers, any agreement reached in Washington in mid-October will only cover Israeli withdrawal from a further 13 per cent of occupied Palestinian territory.

If negotiations reach that stage, further obstacles will present themselves. Israel will have to decide whether it recognises a sovereign state called Palestine; the Palestinians will need to consider whether they insist on East Jerusalem being part of that state. It is a mark of how long it is since the last progress made under the Oslo peace accords - now deadlocked for almost 18 months - that anyone is becoming excited over "agreements" which do not even approach these problems.

The main players have problems with their own supporters. The fringe parties that sustain Mr Netanyahu seem unlikely to accept any deal, and Mr Arafat, for his part, has met Israeli demands so many times that his credibility among radical Palestinians has collapsed. It is farcical for Israel to demand security guarantees that, due to their own refusal to compromise, Mr Arafat is in no position to give.

The sudden upsurge in hopeful comment seems to owe much to the Clinton administration's media skills, pressed into service to divert attention from its domestic problems. We should not be taken in by this, nor by Mr Netanyahu's desperation to still international criticism. Progress is to be welcomed; but the conflict cannot be resolved by gestures from those with neither the power nor the will to reach a real agreement.