Israelis trample on corpse of peaceby Ann Treneman

The Middle East
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YOU HAD only to listen to the journalistic cliches to know this would be the last year of the Middle East "peace process".

In January, it had to be "put back on track". By spring, it had to be "resurrected". By autumn, it had to be "salvaged". By year's end, even the BBC World Service's correspondent in Jerusalem was at last forced to admit it was "dying".

Variously regarded as a railway train, a buried corpse, a sinking Titanic - anything rather than admit the truth - the Oslo Agreement was in reality dead the moment it was signed. The Wye Agreement, dutifully signed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in October, was merely part of the wake.

When the Israeli Prime Minister formally declared Wye "suspended" just before Christmas, it was an acknowledgment that the game was up. There would be no more talks with the Palestinians - but of course, that didn't stop further Jewish settlement-building on Arab land, the continued confiscation of Palestinian identification papers and the continued destruction of Palestinian homes.

By the year's end the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader ruled over a garbage-tip Bantustan of slivered towns and refugee camps with the help of 11 secret police forces, prison torture, censorship and total disdain for his people's would-be democratic parliament.

The Middle East peace was supposed to have been founded on UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land in return for the security of all states (including Israel) in the region.

Oslo allowed Israel to renegotiate 242, to decide which bits of occupied land it might "give" to the Palestinians and which bits it would keep. The occupied West Bank was henceforth to be called "disputed", which meant the whole place was up for grabs. Which is why the Israelis started building a new settlement at Jebel Abu Ghoneim east of Jerusalem - now called by its Hebrew name of Har Homa - on the basis that Oslo didn't say they couldn't build more settlements on Arab land.

And which is why Mr Netanyahu's new Foreign Minister, fresh from securing the Wye Agreement, told the Jewish settlers in the West Bank to "seize every hilltop they can". Each Palestinian objection was treated as an attempt to destroy the "peace process". When Mr Arafat suspended peace talks because of the Jebel Abu Ghoneim/Har Homa settlement, he was accused of wanting to abrogate peace. When Palestinians protested violently against further settlements, they were told they were trying to kill peace.

When Mr Netanyahu declared Jerusalem the unified and eternal capital, he told the Palestinians they had no right to take away Israel's sovereign capital - even though the future of Jerusalem, like settlements and Palestinian refu-gees, was supposed to be part of the final status talks in the Oslo agreement next May.

But when Mr Arafat, sick and humiliated, scorned by increasing numbers of his own people, suggested he might declare a Palestinian state if there was no May settlement, the Israelis turned on him vengefully.

First, the Israelis said, the Palestine National Council had to renounce - for the second time - the clause in its charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. And only hours before it obediently did so, Israel produced more conditions: no more threats to declare a Palestinian state or violent protests against the peace accord.

Inevitably, the violent Palestinian Hamas movement, still demanding an Islamic state for all of Palestine, continued its war against Israel. "Terrorists," screamed the Israelis. When Jewish settlers shot down Palestinians they were called "extremists" or "zealots". Double standards have also been a foundation of the Oslo Agreement.

But the "peace process" is not about fairness or justice; it revolves around just how little the Palestinians will accept in return for being a client kingdom of Israel. The Wye Agreement - presided over by thefickle leadership of Bill Clinton - restated all the Oslo conditions that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat had failed to meet but added a new pro-Israeli clause, which heaped the blame for all violence on to Palestinians.

Mr Arafat was enjoined to hunt down "terrorists", "terrorist cells" and the "terrorist structure" of "terror groups" - and he could forget the "terrorist" violence of Israeli settlers over whom there was to be no control - with the help of the CIA. Palestinian jails began to fill up again with "Islamists" and the PLO's torturers went back to work with the CIA's blessing.

Mr Clinton used the opportunity of "saving the peace" to embellish his own failed statesmanship, accepting almost all Israel's demands - even considering the release of an Israeli spy who had been paid to steal American military secrets - while rewarding Mr Arafat with a visit to Gaza.

For most of the year, the Palestinians burnt American flags. In December, they paused to fly the US flag over Gaza to greet President Clinton as he stepped on to the soil of "Palestine". But within four days - once they realised that the "friend" of Palestine was abandoning them again - the Palestinians burnt the American flag once more.

Even before Mr Clinton had left the Middle East, Mr Netanyahu refused to carry out further troop withdrawals that Israel had promised and then suspended the Wye Agreement altogether - no objections from the Americans, of course.

Unable any longer to balance his refusal to abide by the terms of the Oslo accord with the even more bellicose policies of extremists in his cabinet, Mr Netanyahu called an election, which will suspend all relations with the Palestinians for more than three months - an effective death notice for Oslo.

Syria, which saw through the facade of Oslo from the start, still sticks to Resolution 242 as a foundation of peace - and the return by Israel of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. And so does Lebanon, where Syrian- supported guerrillas from the Hizbollah movement continue to attack Israeli troops occupying the southern part of Lebanon - and whose withdrawal was supposed to have been completed in 1978 under the terms of UN Resolution 425.

Israel condemns these "terrorist attacks", demanding yet more conditions that do not appear in the UN resolution.

If Labour takes power in the April Israeli elections, say the optimists, maybe the "peace process" will be put back on track again. But the dead cannot be resurrected and by April, the explosion that all America's friends in the region - Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - have warned of may well have come to pass.