Middle East Peace


The contours of another serious effort to reach a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians have become clearly visible in recent days, as renewed talks proceed in Washington during President Clinton's last month in office. On all sides there are significant political motives for fresh negotiations, despite the dreadful violence of the last 12 weeks in which well over 300 people have died, the great majority of them Palestinian civilians. Whether the new efforts will bear fruit will depend greatly on the talks in Washington today and tomorrow.

Dramatic developments in Israeli politics provide an essential backdrop for this initiative. The prime minister, Mr Ehud Barak, has successfully outmanoeuvred Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, who attempted to make a comeback as leader of the main opposition Likud Party. When Mr Netanyahu failed to win a vote supporting general elections instead of a popular vote to select a prime minister, he withdrew from the fray. That leaves the contest between Mr Barak and the current Likud leader, Mr Ariel Sharon. Although Mr Barak trails Mr Sharon in the opinion polls, the picture would look very different if he could offer an agreement to the electorate, most of whom favour the peace process.

The latest Palestinian uprising is driven in large part by popular dissatisfaction with the terms offered during the talks in Camp David last summer. On Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, there has been widespread opposition. Combined with the momentum of the uprising, that has made it difficult indeed for Mr Yasser Arafat to return to the negotiating table. But he has a fundamental stake in the Oslo process, which is a logical consequence of the two-state solution to the conflict; and the latest indications are that he is very seriously seeking to reach an agreement. There are advantages in trying to do so before President Clinton leaves office and before Israeli voters choose a new prime minister. That international opinion strongly favours such an attempt, is made clear by the failure of the Security Council to support a Palestinian call for an observer mission to be sent to the West Bank and Gaza.

This favourable political setting could produce the chemistry to make the necessary compromises. It is significant that the most difficult issue, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands, has come into the foreground of speculation about a possible agreement. Some 3.6 million people, descendants of the 720,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war of independence, are living in the occupied territories or in camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Their right of return is laid down in United Nations Resolution 194. The latest reports indicate a readiness by Mr Barak to offer the Palestinians more sovereignty over Jerusalem in return for renunciation of the right to return, probably accompanied by some financial compensation. Since many Jews live in houses or land confiscated from Palestinians in 1948, it would be politically impossible for Mr Barak to accept an unqualified right of return. But he knows the potential agreement available now is tilted strongly in Israel's favour and believes he could convince the Israeli electorate to support it.