Peace At Last?

Arafat and Rabin seem close to a historic breakthrough. But already firebrands on both sides are out in force against them.

HE IS THE TERRORIST PERSONIFIED. NO, HE IS A FREEDOM fighter. He is a statesman, the founding father of a homeless nation that has endured the wilderness for 45 years. No, he is a ruthless plotter who orders the killing of babies. The Palestinians and Israelis both need someone like Yasir Arafat--national hero and national demon. To millions beyond the Middle East, he is an instantly recognizable figure, with his stubbly face, the pistol on his hip, the checkerboard kaffiyeb hiding his bald head. After decades on display, Arafat, 64, is more than a little shopworn. His organization is nearly bankrupt, his power is fading and his supporters are slipping away. His enemies are legion, inside and outside the Palestinian movement. But Arafat is an escape artist, a wily survivor. He has at least one more gamble in him, one desperate attempt to restore his standing and redeem the promises he couldn't keep.

His rescuers turn out to be two other old men, also approaching the end of their careers, also seeking one last chance to change stalemate into triumph. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, 71, is a bleakly pragmatic military man who spent decades cracking Arab skulls and now wants to be known as a peacemaker. His foreign minister and longtime political rival, Shimon Peres, 70, is an idealistic intellectual, a tireless searcher for peace who strikes some Israelis as a washed-up political back. Each an adversary of the other two, the three old men are the unlikeliest of partners in what could be the most dramatic Mideast breakthrough since Anwar Sadat's mission to Jerusalem 16 years ago. But then, as Rabin put it, "Peace is not made with friends. Peace is made with enemies."

Their negotiating breakthrough was reminiscent of communism's collapse--the unthinkable suddenly and hopefully at hand. For years, the Arabs and Israelis had been models of intransigence, lurching from desert battlefield to barren peace table and back again. With the end of the cold war, the world changed around them, weakening Arafat but also sapping Rabin's sense of security. Spiritually exhausted, they acted out of a desperate sense that time and opportunity were slipping away. If a compromise could not be achieved now, Rabin and Arafat would be overtaken by extremists on both sides-Israeli bard-liners and Muslim fundamentalists.

The three old enemies stole a march on the opponents of compromise by authorizing secret negotiations-in Norway, of all places. They left Washington almost entirely out of the loop, turning to the Americans for political and financial support only after they had cut their deal. They abandoned long-held positions. Israel finally dealt directly with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, after years of insisting it would never do so. PLO negotiators settled for gradual autonomy, instead of an immediate Palestinian state, in territory now occupied by Israel.

Last week a draft of their agreement on Palestinian autonomy was published, and the parties seemed to be on the verge of signing it. Instead, they haggled over the crucial side issue of mutual recognition. In effect, Arafat had long since conceded Israel's right to exist, free from terrorism and the threat of extermination. But now the promise had to be made explicitly, and by late in the week, the parties were still groping for words, giving their critics time to undercut the deal. The agreement may yet be signed this week or next, probably without a face-to-face meeting of all three old enemies. But delay could doom the peace plan, now that firebrands on both sides are out in force against it.

In Israel, Jewish settlers demonstrated angrily, calling Rabin a "traitor." A group of right-wing rabbis warned about "a civil war that is likely to break out as a result of [the government's] dangerous and crazy steps." In the occupied territories, Hamas, the rapidly growing Islamic Resistance Movement, warned darkly: "We will never agree to be part of this game." In Damascus, Ahmed Jabril, an extremist Palestinian warlord with links to Iran, threatened to kill Arafat. "Arab terrorism and the Jewish reaction will smash this agreement to pieces," predicted Eliakim Haetzni, a leader of the West Bank settlers.

If it survives, the agreement would establish a five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule, starting in the Gaza Strip and the ancient West Bank city of Jericho (map, page 23). The Israeli military would withdraw from Arab population centers, and the Palestinians would elect a governing council. The agreement left for later the most difficult issues, including control over Jerusalem and the status of the 120,000 Jewish settlers in occupied territories. If the agreement is signed, it may be quickly matched by separate settlements between Israel and three Arab neighbors: Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. "The horizons to peace are open," Rabin declared.

What made peace possible was the fact that Arafat's horizons had narrowed. The breakup of the Soviet Union had deprived him of his superpower patron. Now, in Bill Clinton, he faced probably the most pro-Israeli U.S. president in recent memory. The war in the Persian Gulf had been politically and financially ruinous for Arafat. He backed the wrong horse, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and lost his access to the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states. The PLO went almost broke, its billions of dollars in reserves nearly depleted. Supporters within the PLO began to drift away from Arafat. "This organization is finished, whether you go with the settlement to the end or drop out of the settlement now," said poet Mahmoud Darwish, who recently resigned from the PLO's executive committee.

As Arafat faded, the fundamentalists gathered strength. Estimates of their support in the occupied territories hovered around 35 percent. Arafat tried to co-opt the militants. Their price for joining forces with him was 40 percent of the seats on the Palestine National Council, the PLO's Parliament in exile, and a similar share of the 18-member executive committee. They also demanded that Arafat return to his old policy toward Israel: the dream of reconquering all of Palestine. The fundamentalists, in short, would settle for nothing less than co-opting Arafat. Instead, the PLO leader turned to the Israelis.

He found them more receptive than ever. In last year's Israeli election, Rabin and his Labor Party had run against the conservative Likud bloc on what amounted to a peace platform endorsed by Washington. Israeli voters expected results from Rabin, the general who led Israeli forces to victory in 1967. "As the one who brought all the territories to Israel, and as a symbol of war in Israel, he personally wants to enter history as a hero of both war and peace," says Eitan Haber, an aide to Rabin.

The "peace process" had been restarted in Madrid two years ago under a formula that allowed Israel to talk to inhabitants of the occupied territories without having to deal directly with the PLO. But those talks, which resumed in Washington last week, were going nowhere. Rabin and U.S. officials had hoped that "moderate" Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza would be able to take the initiative away from PLO outsiders. They were far more comfortable dealing with academics like Hanan Ashrawi-or even with Faisal Husseini, a known member of Arafat's Fatah faction-than with guerrilla leaders based in Tunis and long described by Israel as "terrorists."

A few months ago, however, Rabin finally "lost hope that the people from inside could deliver," says Dedi Zucker, a left-wing member of the Israeli Knesset. An official close to Rabin says the prime minister concluded that the Palestinian delegates "were not the type of leaders who could turn to Arafat and say, 'Kiss my ass, we are the leadership.' He realized they were first and foremost afraid of assassination and boycott by the inhabitants of the West Bank."

Rabin also realized that Arafat was losing ground to the fundamentalists. His intelligence reports told him that groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Iranian client, were capitalizing on the PLO's decline. As a military man, Rabin saw the growing influence of Iran which is thought to be on the threshold of developing nuclear weapons-as the primary threat to Israel's survival. Arafat became the lesser of evils.

Negotiations got started almost by accident. The secret channel was proposed in June 1992 by Terje Roed Larsen, a Norwegian social scientist who had been doing research in the occupied territories and had established contact with moderate Palestinians and dovish Israelis. Informal talks began late last year in London and then moved to Norway. Israel "didn't attach much importance to them," says an Israeli source familiar with the process. Then, last spring, the chief PLO negotiator, Ahmed Qurie, handed over a proposed agreement. The PLO draft was rough and "far from satisfactory," says the Israeli source. But it included the "Gaza-Jericho first" idea. The paper was shown to Peres, who passed it on to Rabin. "For Rabin, it was kind of a shock, but he saw the need to continue this deniable channel," says the source. In May, Uri Savir, the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, met with Qurie and returned home, saying: "I need a lawyer. It's not just a seminar; we're doing business here."

The business was transacted at a series of locations in Norway. Israelis and Palestinians actually lived together, walking in the woods wearing Norwegian knitwear and dining on local delicacies such as reindeer meat and salmon. "We pretended they were eccentric professors wanting to write a book on the Middle East," Jan Egeland, the Norwegian diplomat in charge of the talks, told NEWSWEEK.

Back in Israel, Foreign Minister Peres was operating mostly on his own. Rabin, who got on badly with his old Labor foe, was still keeping his distance by the first week in August, according to Khalil Jahsan, the executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. At a meeting in Jerusalem, Peres briefed jahsan on his peace initiative and said Rabin still had not signed off on it. Later, when jahsan met with Rabin's aides, they grilled him on what Peres was up to.

Arafat and his aides were more circumspect, if only because their lives were on the line. But eventually they shared the secret with Egyptian officials, who enthusiastically supported the initiative. In mid-August, Osama El Baz, a top aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, dropped a hint to Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who was visiting Cairo. "If you want to keep your eye on the ball, the ball is not in Washington," El Baz told Siegman. "It's in Oslo."

Rabin finally endorsed the Peres plan, and on Aug. 20, the Israeli foreign minister flew to Norway, where he and Qurie initialed the agreement in principle. A few days later Rabin telephoned Warren Christopher, the U.S. secretary of state, who was vacationing in California. Rabin asked Christopher to talk to Peres. They met at Point Mugu naval air station on Aug. 27, and when Peres laid out the details of the peace plan, Christopher was flabbergasted. "The scope of the agreement was stunning," recalls a senior aide to the secretary. "This was now moving much faster than any of us had realized." The two men talked for four hours. "It was a gut check," says a senior State Department official. "Peres wanted to know if this deal could be implemented." Christopher, a veteran of the successful Camp Da-,,id negotiations in 1978, thought it could work and agreed to drum up support for the peace initiative. Last week he got on the phone to soothe Syrian President Hafez Assad and Jordan's King Hussein, both of whom were miffed at having been left out of the Norwegian talks. He talked about raising money to pay for development in the occupied territories, adding that "the funds, I think, will primarily come from others."

Support for the agreement in Israel and the occupied territories was more problematical. Among the highly politicized Israelis, most people had already made at least a preliminary judgment, according to a poll conducted by the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. It showed 53 percent in favor of the peace plan and 45 percent opposed; only 2 percent of the respondents said they didn't know what to think. In the occupied territories, 52.8 percent of the Palestinians surveyed backed the Gaza-Jericho plan, according to a poll published in East Jerusalem's a-Nahar. The approval rate was higher in areas scheduled for early Israeli withdrawal: 70 percent in Gaza and 75 percent in Jericho.

It was clearly in the interests of both Rabin and Arafat to sign the autonomy agreement quickly, before their opponents had a chance to organize a counteroffensive. But the parties hit a snag on the issue of mutual recognition. The Israelis wanted the PLO to recognize their statehood and to renounce the use of violence against Israel. They also wanted the PLO to specifically repudiate portions of its 1964 founding covenant that call for the destruction of Israel. The covenant can be changed definitively only by the Palestine National Council, whose 450-plus members are scattered around the world. Assembling the body would take time, and it wasn't clear that Arafat could muster the two-thirds majority required for a change in the covenant.

In theory, the peace plan could have been signed without mutual recognition. The Palestinian delegation to the Washington peace talks could have signed instead of the PLO. But neither side wanted that. Recognition of its right to exist in peace is Israel's price for concessions to the PLO. And Arafat did not want to surrender the spotlight to any other Palestinians. Instead, Israel agreed to settle for a strong statement from Arafat himself, and the two sides spent last week dickering over language. The PLO said publicly that the armed struggle had been "superseded" by the peace process. That wasn't strong enough for the Israelis. They wanted to hear words like "renounce."

The negotiators hoped-and almost expected-that the recognition issue could be resolved in time to sign the peace agreement this week or next. Seeking safety in numbers, the PLO also hoped that Jordan, Syria and Lebanon could sign their own agreements with Israel. Progress was being made in that direction. In Washington, Israel and Jordan were close to a framework on security, political matters and economic concerns. The State Department was pressing for a signing this week, but the king, who is cautious to a fault, may drag his heels.

Syria's Assad may not be eager for a final settlement with Israel. He would regain part or all of the occupied Golan Heights, but he might lose much of his control over Lebanon, which he values more. The Syrian president is less concerned about the fate of the Palestinians. He worries about maintaining his own despotic regime, long justified by defunct Pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism. Syria was not as close to a deal with Israel as Jordan was. But a senior U.S. official said the Syrians were making good progress and might soon be able to sign "some type of framework agreement" on the Golan Heights and other security issues. Whether Assad had yet been persuaded to jump on the peace bandwagon remained very much in doubt.

A more severe threat to the peace plan came from angry minorities on both sides of the Green Line between Israel and the occupied territories. As Jewish settlers demonstrated against autonomy last week, Dedi Zucker, the left-wing parliamentarian, observed: "They are throwing eggs now. Later they will throw stones, and after that they will shoot. A small group of them will use weapons." Joseph Alpher, a former official of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and now director of a think tank at Tel Aviv University, estimated that 10,000 Jewish settlers were ready to take up arms against autonomy. "And there is always the wild card of Arab terrorism," he added. "If the Palestinians opposed to a settlement succeed in carrying out some horrendous terrorist acts, this will raise tensions considerably."

Many Israelis believe, not without reason, that autonomy is only a first step toward complete Palestinian sovereignty. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, accused the government of "saving the PLO from breaking apart and giving it a Palestinian state, which will endanger the very existence of Israel." Rabin and Peres had a difficult selling job to do. "People prefer remembering, rather than thinking," Peres told the newspaper Hadashot. "In memory, anything goes. People must start buying tickets for the new century." But for both Jews and Arabs, memories are strong and bitter after generations of conflict. Many of them are not yet ready for a new era.

      West Bank:

Seized: 1967 

Hard-line Jewish settlers could cause trouble.


JEWS         100,000


Gaza Strip

Seized: 1967

Many of the poorest and most radical Palestinians live here.


JEWS           4,000        


Sinai Peninsula:

Seized: 1967

Returned: 1982 Israel and Egypt cut a deal at Camp David.

Golan Heights:

Seized: 1967

Most Israelis still oppose a deal with Syria.

East Jerusalem

Seized: 1967

Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital.


JEWS         133,000 


Israel and PLO are set to recognize each other formally. Peace agreement would give Palestinians control of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Four months after signing agreement, Israel would withdraw troops from those areas.

Palestinian Council to be elected within nine months. Will govern the West Bank and Gaza for five-year interim period. Council will control local police force, utilities and welfare agencies.

Within two years, Israel and PLO must begin talks on the status of Jerusalem. Also on agenda: the fate of Jewish settlements on West Bank, and Palestinian refugees who want to come back.



IT WAS A FAMILIAR SCENE IN the Gaza Strip. About 200 Islamic radicals gathered outside a mosque to chant: "Death to America! Death to Israel!" The new target of their old fury was the peace pact between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jewish state: "No peace and no surrender!" When protesters began throwing stones, Israeli soldiers opened fire, lightly wounding three. In Gaza, wretched home to 800,000 frustrated Palestinians, that was nothing new. But what if peace does break out in the Middle East? What if the soldiers trying to keep order are not Israeli, but the Palestinians themselves?

Palestinians around the world have never been so close to having a country of their own. So they've never had to answer the fundamental question: can they govern? Israel has ruled the West Bank and Gaza jealously for more than 26 years, and the Palestinians have little experience running their own affairs. The peace accord would give them less than nine months to learn key skills:

The PLO must bring the radical fundamentalists under control-at the risk of civil war. For months the organization has been assembling recruits from inside and outside the occupied territories. training them in Jordan and Egypt. in addition, thousands of Palestinians already are serving around the Arab world in the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA). They may become police as well. "These guys are not going to be handing out traffic tickets," says Joseph Alpher, a former Mossad official and now director of a think tank at Tel Aviv University. "I fear it will be messy." Will the new police be prepared to suppress Palestinians who attack Israelis? That, says Alpher, is "the key test."

The PLO will have to suppress popular fundamentalist parties while it supposedly plans for free elections next year. The PLO's exiled leadership has no experience with elections, and until recently the Israelis tried to crush the development of any real, independent leadership in the territories.

An end to the violence, strikes and boycotts that began with the intifada six years ago would bring an instant sense of relief But the United Nations estimates that unemployment in Gaza's eight refugee camps is running at 50 to 60 percent. "Gaza is another planet," says Fayez Abu Rahme, a prominent Palestinian lawyer. "It will need a lot of money as many zeros as you can think of" Even before the peace accord could be signed, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was in Brussels drumming up European funds, and Washington vowed to contribute its share of financial support. How to administer the largesse? Tens of thousands of Palestinians are among the most skilled professionals in the Arab world. But the PLO itself is plagued by allegations of corruption, and many Palestinians fear it will bring the pox into the government.

Palestinian as well as Israeli bard-liners will find it hard to relinquish their role as "victims": it's become easy to evade responsibility by blaming all one's problems on the intractable enemy. "These people will find any means to be a victim-even in the best possible situation," says Israeli author David Grossman. "Now they are 'victims' of peace." In the tumultuous Mideast, that could yet make peace itself the victim-again.

'I was ready to fight and die as a martyr and so to enter paradise.'

Yasir Arafat