The Middle East -- Peace and War

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It's taken Israelis and Palestinians 19 months of deadlock, and eight days of non-stop negotiations, to achieve an interim deal that does little more than implement the next "land-for-peace" stage of the Oslo agreement. When -- and if -- Friday's agreements are put into practice, the two sides will still have to negotiate what Oslo called the "final status" issues. These include the impossibly tricky questions of a Palestinian state, Israeli settlers in Palestinian territories and even the future of Jerusalem.

Of course the differences on final-status issues looked insurmountable at the time Oslo was signed, which was why the four-year interim was designed -- to give both sides time to learn to trust each other in quid-pro-quo steps before tackling the most difficult hurdle. But, far from building mutual confidence, the last four years have been a disaster. Both sides are girding for confrontation next May, when Yasser Arafat intends to declare a Palestinian state regardless of Israel's objections. Indeed, a cynical view might hold that both sides came to Wye in order to position themselves most favorably in U.S. eyes for that confrontation. "Netanyahu's interest remains to have a peace process without an end point, to simply keep the ball rolling and rolling but never get anywhere," said TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer at the start of the talks. "Arafat has lost hope of making significant process peace with this Israeli leadership. He has his eye on next May. Both sides are preparing for that eventuality."

The other thing that's changed in four years is political will. Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat reached out to one another to forge a partnership as peacemakers -- an idea that Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed for the first time on Friday, but without much enthusiasm. "Netanyahu is ideologically opposed to Rabin's point of view," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "He's tried to undo what Rabin tried to set up. He's now saying he's ready to trade land for peace, but that remains to be seen."

The immediate danger is that a major Hamas attack will goad Netanyahu to back out of conceding land for peace. Palestinian support for the peace process is also at a low ebb. "The mood has changed," says TIME West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad. "The optimism has given way to indifference and anxiety. Don't expect Palestinians to celebrate this agreement, because they doubt whether Netanyahu plans to implement any deal. For the Palestinians, Oslo was the compromise, and now this is the compromise of the compromise."

And Arafat's ailing health was plain to see at Friday‚s ceremony. "The problem," says Dowell, "is that Arafat's made tough decisions that aren't popular among Palestinians, but he hasn't created an heir."

There may be some comfort for optimists, however: Netanyahu may lack enthusiasm for the land-for-peace option, but he has found himself with no alternative. "In the realities of the current global situation and given the terms of modern warfare, Israel isn't in a very strong position to fight a war with its neighbors," says Dowell. "That makes it very difficult for Netanyahu defying the Americans and going it alone." The Palestinians, too, lack a strategic alternative to the negotiating process. So while peace hasn't yet prevailed, at least it has survived to fight another day.