Waiting For History To Happen

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The talks were interrupted by the concluding days of Barak's campaign, but Erakat says his Israeli counterpart, Gilead Sher, who had teamed up with Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, agreed they could be successfully concluded by April 30 if Barak remained in office. Israeli sources confirm the talks took place and say that had Barak been re-elected, they might have been able to conclude a deal in two months. Assuming, they add, the Palestinians really wanted a deal.

Most of the sessions took place in a suite at Jerusalem's King David Hotel. According to details provided by Erakat and his partner in the talks, security chief Dahlan, Israel agreed to withdraw from as much as 95% of the West Bank, compared with 89% at Camp David. The Israeli side dealt in terms of recognizing Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and most of the Old City. The Palestinians agreed to cede 3% of the West Bank so large Jewish settlements could be incorporated into Israel. The Palestinians approved an Israeli demand for U.S. and other forces to be stationed for a certain period inside the new Palestinian state to help ensure Israel's security. Arafat instructed his negotiators to accept early-warning stations, demanded by Israel in case of an attack, such as by Iraq or Iran. The Palestinians were also ready to accept Israeli sovereignty over the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

Jerusalem continued to be the rawest nerve. The two sides spent hours discussing borders and details like roads, police, sewage, telephones and electricity. On the core issue of the holy sites, Israeli negotiators were prepared to recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. The Palestinians say they were ready to grant "anything less" but not sovereignty--perhaps administrative rights--over the adjacent Western Wall, the Jewish cemetery on the nearby Mount of Olives and the ancient City of David in the nearby Arab village of Silwan. But the Palestinians refused to discuss Israeli sovereignty over the land beneath the Haram. "This is the main sticking point," Erakat says. "We cannot give them that. Period."

Dreams and Nightmares
Feb. 6, 2001. It's past midnight when Arafat settles into a chair decorated with Palestinian embroidery. He's irritable, bitter about Barak, paralyzed when it comes to Sharon, rejecting any suggestion he brought some of the disaster on himself. Sure, Barak made some offers, Arafat acknowledges. "But on the ground, we got nothing," he adds.

Regarding Sharon: though clearly worried, Arafat plays the statesman. He sounds a hopeful note, pointing out that Sharon helped negotiate the interim Wye River agreement with the Palestinians in 1998, though he refused to shake Arafat's hand. "I don't care for what everybody speaks about me," he says, when asked about Sharon's insults. "I am dealing with facts and realities, not with my dreams."

Perhaps, but the dreams are surely sweeter than the realities today. The guerrillas have called Arafat the Old Man since Beirut, but now he really is old. He will turn 72 in August, and some around him are whispering that he is too frail, distracted and out of touch. The tantalizing Israeli and American proposals are now off the table. Recriminations have begun, with Arafat's negotiators squabbling over who screwed up. Arafat's more ambitious men are preparing for the coming succession struggle.

Meanwhile, Arafat's personal Force 17 commando group has taken control of the streets after fresh rumblings of discontent. Recently, an angry mob besieged a police station and set free a youth arrested by one of Arafat's officers for gun running. With each passing day the intifadeh becomes more of a guerrilla war, including armed attacks by Arafat's security men working underground. Last week in Gaza, as Sharon forged a unity government with Barak, Israel assassinated a Force 17 commander, alleging he attacked a Jewish settlement. The following day, a Gaza bus driver in Israel killed eight Israelis by ramming his vehicle into a crowd of soldiers at a bus stop.

Money is near the top of Arafat's worries. He bitterly complains that Barak's government has frozen $320 million in Palestinian tax remittances. He doesn't say so, but Arab states, concerned about corruption, are also holding up $237 million in support. Half a billion dollars would keep some discontent at bay.

So Oslo, the greatest trophy of Arafat's career, is history. The gap in expectations turned out to be too wide for Israelis and Palestinians to close, the peace process itself too flawed to produce a magic solution. Even if Sharon comes and goes, as Barak, Netanyahu, Peres and Rabin did before him, Arafat must discover a new way of dealing with the Israelis. Otherwise, he will never persuade them to give the Palestinians what they want. Many Palestinians believe their fortunes will improve only when* Arafat's domination of their affairs ends. "Democracy is needed," says Haider Abdel Shafi, who headed the Palestinian team at the Madrid Peace Conference. "Arafat will never admit that he made a mistake. He will simply blame Israeli aggression."

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