In fact, Barak suggested some months ago that failure to reach a final peace agreement would simply mean that relations between Israel and the Palestinians would be defined by a further series of interim agreements. And the same notion is implicit even in Yasser Arafat's threat to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state if the September deadline passes without a final agreement. After all, that state would remain largely dependent on Israel for everything from jobs to electricity, and it would have to resolve many tricky border disputes with the Jewish state. Arafat wants a state, not a war, and even a unilateral declaration of independence would make reaching a working understanding with Israel its first priority. Israel may have warned that it would retaliate by seizing land, but the Jewish state, too, would take care to avoid a war that neither side wants.
It's certainly a lot easier to end or avoid a war than it is to conclude a peace. Israel and Syria, for example, remain unable to reach a peace agreement, but they haven't traded a shot in 27 years. North Korea and South Korea, too, are still technically at war and separated only by a cease-fire line, but that truce has anchored a half century of relative stability. Similarly, the bitter dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir periodically erupts into skirmishes, but the Line of Control established by a 1972 cease-fire continues to function as a de facto border that both sides accept as a military reality even though they would find it intolerable to legitimize as a formal political boundary.
Cease-fires simply signify that both sides recognize they're unable to deliver a knockout punch on the battlefield and that there's nothing further to be gained, and plenty to lose, by fighting on. But a peace agreement inevitably demands that each side compromise, to a greater or lesser extent, on the cause for which they went to war in the first place. And that demands a painful relinquishing of both sides' holy cows and the often-elusive recognition that the epic hatred at the core of their national identities is misplaced and self-defeating.
The Oslo Accords required leaps of the imagination by both Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. After decades of denying the legitimacy of the PLO's national struggle and condemning it as mindless terrorism, Israel finally accepted that the Palestinians had legitimate grievances with Israel and that ceding territory was the only basis for peace. For Arafat and the PLO, Oslo meant accepting the legitimacy of a Jewish state whose very creation involved the legal dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and accepting the principle that Palestinian national aspirations could be realized only in the West Bank and Gaza, which comprise only 22 percent of the Palestine they had fought to "liberate." Those compromises continue to be deeply distasteful to both sides.
Oslo's fundamental strength may also have been its key weakness: The accord functioned as a de facto cease-fire, in which both sides took a series of incremental steps toward peace but postponed resolving the intractable questions at the core of their conflict. It did, however, create a deadline for such final resolution, which is now upon us, and the six-year interim has done little to foster an atmosphere conducive to resolving the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem (which religious passions demand that both sides claim as their capital) and the future of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and of Palestinian refugees abroad.
A peace deal can disarm warring nations only if each side can proclaim it as a victory and a vindication of their bitter struggle and sacrifices, even when to the impartial observer it appears obvious that both sides have made significant concessions. And with the bottom lines proclaimed by both sides going into the talks, that may be a tall order. Arafat and Barak may even have reached the point where it's easier to split the difference without concluding a final deal than it would be to sign an agreement that carries the risk of both leaders being overwhelmed by naysayers screaming "sellout."
Cease-fires, of course, do not a legacy make. But the pursuit of a final peace deal may, ironically, exacerbate the conflict by reopening old wounds and rekindling the passions on both sides that initiated their original conflict. Arafat and Barak may now find themselves tempted, instead, to avoid a final peace deal as a way of keeping the peace.