A faltering step on a bloody trail

The Middle East peace process may be back on track but, says Patrick Cockburn, all of the most difficult issues remain

IT IS A bulky but innocuous looking document, but it has left a trail of blood and political destruction since it was first signed four years ago.

It is the Israeli-Palestinian agreement for the partial dismantling of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, which it captured in 1967.

The original version of the accord was signed in Washington in 1995. Its provisions looked limited. Israeli settlements stayed in place. Palestinian towns and villages would still be surrounded by Israeli-held territory. Many Palestinians denounced it for giving them a series of Bantustans rather than their own state.

In fact the consequences of the agreement - born again in a modified form last night in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh - were far more explosive than anybody expected. The Israeli right wing saw it as the death knell for Israel's permanent rule over Judea and Samaria - the West Bank - which they believed was the land God gave to the Jews.

A month after Yitzhak Rabin signed the so-called Oslo 2 accord he was dead, shot in the back by a student called Yigal Amir as he left a rally of supporters of the new agreement in Tel Aviv. Amir had earlier said that if he killed Mr Rabin "there'll be elections and Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu) will be in power".

Few assassinations have been more successful, at least in the short term. Six months after Amir shot Mr Rabin, Mr Netanyahu came to power. He could not reverse the Israeli withdrawals which had already taken place - he even withdrew from part of Hebron himself in 1997 - but he deep-froze the process.

But Oslo 2 still had the power to destroy governments. Under intense pressure from President Clinton and after prolonged negotiations at the Wye Plantation at the end of 1998, Mr Netanyahu signed up to a new version of the three-year-old accord. He agreed that Israel would withdraw from a further 11 per cent of the West Bank, claiming that he had improved on the original terms of the agreement. But it was too much for the Israeli far right and they brought down his government.

He was decisively defeated by Ehud Barak, former Israeli chief of staff, in the election in May. The new Prime Minister said he would implement Wye but wanted to renegotiate it. This he successfully did last Friday when the Palestinians agreed 350 of their prisoners - not 400 as they demanded - would be released.

Sharm el-Sheikh, a somnolent resort overshadowed by red hills on the west side of the Sinai peninsula was an appropriate setting for last night's scheduled signing of what has become known as Wye 2. It was here in 1996 that Mr Clinton convened a meeting of 30 world leaders. Its aim was "to advance the peace process, security and fight against terrorism". Palestinian suicide bombers had just blown up 60 Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

It was in effect an international election rally for Shimon Peres, the prime minister who succeeded Mr Rabin, just before Israelis went to the polls. It failed utterly. Voters, in so far as they were affected at all, were irritated to see Mr Peres hobnobbing with world statesmen while they were too frightened to put their children on the schoolbus.

Many Palestinians will also have been irritated last night to see Mr Arafat walk down a red carpet to sign one more agreement on the implementation of the original Oslo accords of 1993. Despite all the hype about "historic moments" and "the opening of a new era" they have seen their standard of living drop in the last six years.

Outside their autonomous enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank their real freedom of movement is less than it was a decade ago. Critics of Mr Arafat say, with some truth, that Israel controls the lives of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories as much as ever.

The new agreement expands Palestinian enclaves but they are still surrounded by Israeli checkpoints. It opens up two safe passages between Gaza and the West Bank, though this may be limited by security arrangements.There will still be two competing authorities on the West Bank, but the balance is tilting a little more towards the Palestinians.

Whatever the new agreement says about dividing the West Bank into three zones with differing levels of Palestinian control, it is the 1.5 million Pale- stinians who are the overwhelming majority of the population. Even in East Jerusalem, where Israel says its sovereignty is total, Mr Arafat has a measure of authority over the Palestinian population, simply because it supports him.

There is another reason for taking last night's agreement seriously. The political context in Israel is very different from what it was during the last meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh in 1996. The nationalist right suffered a historic defeat in the election in May. They are still divided. The militant settlers are unpopular. Israelis have got used to Mr Arafat living down the road in Gaza. Above all the Israeli political will to fight to hold on to the West Bank is far less strong than it was four years ago.

COMMENT, PAGE 25

TERMS OF AGREEMENT

Israel says it will start implementing the agreement in 10 days time.

n 200 Palestinian prisoners are to be released; and a further 150 on 8 October.

n Israeli withdrawal from West Bank will take place in three stages, ending 20 January 2000. When completed Palestinians will have full or partial control over 42 per cent of West Bank.

n Two safe passages will open between Gaza and West Bank which have been isolated from each other. Construction of a sea port starts in Gaza in October.

n Final Status talks: All the most difficult, divisive issues were left for a final round of talks. These include the future of Jerusalem; 3.8 million Palestinian refugees; Palestinian statehood; water; Jewish settlements; borders of Palestinian entity. A framework agreement is to be reached by February next year; final agreement by September.

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