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Ha'aretz, October 23, 1998

Fun and games at Camp Gimmick

Despite nearly a week of so-called seclusion in the Maryland countryside, the most striking feature of the Wye summit is the very high level of grandstanding by those seeking approval at home

By David Makovsky, Ha'aretz


WASHINGTON - The organizers said before it all started that the Wye summit would not be another Camp David and they appear to be right - so far it seems to be more like Camp Gimmick. While the place is ostensibly secluded, Israeli officials behaved as if it were a stage, with right-wing supporters in Israel as the play's audience and President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, CIA director George Tenet and the American peace team as mere props. This focus on gimmickry is sad from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective, since it served mostly to distract attention from the merits of Israel's case, rather than amplify it.

While examples of gimmickry are plentiful, perhaps the most glaringly obvious moment came on Wednesday night after Netanyahu's aides declared, under instruction from above, that Israel would leave the talks if security issues were not resolved. This verbal threat was not deemed sufficient, so before the Secretary of State arrived at Netanyahu's quarters at Wye with the U.S. bridging proposals, members of the Israeli team dragged luggage out onto the lawn to reinforce the point. This fact was conveyed promptly to reporters, as was a declaration issued just before deadline time for the Israeli press that Netanyahu had set a four-hour deadline before he himself would leave. This threat was dropped four hours later.

In the meantime, the Israeli press office, working under the assumption that the phone lines were bugged, notified reporters that they should prepare to leave for Andrews Air Force Base for a late-night press conference and subsequent departure. But the reporters were also advised not to check out just yet. (Israel Television reporter Ehud Ya'ari told Israeli officials that the treasury would have to foot the bill if he were to order expensive satellite time to Andrews after midnight, and then not use it. He was told to hold off, in that case.)

Yes, it's true that at Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said toward the end that he wanted to order a helicopter to take him away, only to withdraw the threat once the crisis was resolved. However, Camp David featured neither the gimmickry nor the blatant attempt to manipulate the media that has characterized the Wye summit.

To shake, or not to shake

It was promptly leaked that Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon did not shake Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's hand when they met Monday night. This may have played well with Sharon's constituents back home, but it was never mentioned that Sharon had the courtesy to notify Arafat's adviser Mohammed Rashid in advance that he would skip the handshake and instead would nod a few times. In fact, Arafat and Sharon talked about farming over dinner.

Yet Sharon appeared a little less courteous when he, along with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, turned up two days late to a summit attended by no less than President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright, CIA director George Tenet and the entire peace team. The fact that the two ministers failed to arrive on Friday meant that the early days were wasted, since it was clear that Netanyahu could not take tough decisions without his full kitchen cabinet. (Trade and Industry Minister Natan Sharansky was in attendance.)

All this rubbed U.S. officials the wrong way. As one American source close to the upper echelons of the Clinton administration put it, "The president and his team came. It looks terrible that the Israeli officials came late."

This was compounded by an apparent insult when Netanyahu's bureau chief Uri Elitzur indicated he needed Jewish settlers to be admitted to the closed area to be counted for a Shabbat minyan. The ostensible problem was not a dearth of Jewish men already at the summit, but that conservative Jews, including members of the Clinton administration, were not admissible as part of a minyan. By way of contrast, in the days before the Hebron accord, Israeli and American officials including Yitzhak Mordechai as well as senior U.S. officials Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, joined together to say kaddish for the mother of peace team member Aaron Miller.

But Netanyahu was determined to rendezvous with the settlers. He ignored an American request not to leave Wye (just as he ignored a U.S. request not to bring his wife Sarah) and met the settlers near a forest late one night this week. The message was clear that Netanyahu could not be separated from his settler base, no matter what.

All part of a plan

The raft of gimmicks should be seen as more than just playing to the Israeli right wing. In a broader context, Israeli officials have never denied that they consider a limited agreement preferable to a comprehensive one, unless this could be accomplished with the Palestinians yielding to virtually all the Israeli demands. A limited agreement would be based on Israel giving up 13 percent of the West Bank (a point already reached in August) in return for Palestinian agreement to crack down on Hamas. The most crucial provision would be that implementation of the second pullback and greater security would not occur until all issues had been resolved. This, in effect, would provide neither land nor security.

To top it off, Israel publicly put forward another demand which it knows the Palestinians cannot accept, regarding extradition. This issue had been resolved privately with an understanding that there would be no extradition, but rather that the CIA would regularly monitor the presence of Palestinian terrorists in PA prisons.

The very essence of a limited deal was that tougher issues such as the scope of a third pullback, timeout on settlement activity, release of Palestinian prisoners and any attempt to deal with the ticking bomb of May 4 (when Arafat plans a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood) would be deferred to an unspecified time and perhaps to a lower level of negotiation, thereby practically guaranteeing deadlock for the foreseeable future.

A limited agreement would be less painful for Netanyahu since it would allow him to avoid some Israeli concessions while still appearing to be a peacemaker. To this end, Netanyahu thought he had an ally, someone else who may have viewed Wye as an international stage, namely President Clinton. It was axiomatic among the Israeli delegation that Clinton needed any sign of victory at Wye to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair and Congressional impeachment hearings. Hence, Israel believed that Clinton would certainly be amenable to a limited agreement.

Arafat digs in his heels

The early signs were good for Netanyahu. Citing State Department officials, American reporters were predicting an early deal even before the summit convened. (A new Washington-based reporter from CNN was perhaps the most vocal in predicting a deal at any moment, every day for a week.) It was clear to Israel that the U.S. was also willing to reach a partial deal.

This optimism in the Israeli camp shifted in a key two-hour meeting Monday night involving Clinton, Netanyahu and Arafat. At the meeting, sources say that Arafat made it clear that he could not accept a partial agreement, and for him, no deal was preferable to a bad deal. There was no way to know when, or if, a partial deal would expand into a wider agreement, since it's not often that the president of the United States devotes almost 60 hours in a week exclusively to the Middle East. As one senior Palestinian official put it this week, "No file is closed until all files are closed."

Faced with Arafat's unswerving position, it seemed clear that there would be no easy victories. Rather, it would be all or nothing. Clinton announced late that night that he was canceling a scheduled two-day campaign trip to the West Coast.

The following day, the U.S. distanced itself from a partial agreement. "It is our objective to reach an agreement that solves all the interim issues," White House press spokesman Joe Lockhart said the next day. Before the Wednesday crisis, Clinton told an audience at the White House East Room: "I have been going over to the Wye talks. I try to say there: 'The only victories that have lasting impact are those that are not victories over others.'"

Yet, despite media hype early in the week that a deal was imminent, the road proved to be difficult, especially since the Monday night trilateral meeting was the only one of its kind all week. Otherwise, it seemed like an ominous sign that through much of the week Clinton met separately with Netanyahu and Arafat. As incredible as it sounds, during a week of Wye talks, there has been almost no direct communication between Netanyahu and Arafat. Netanyahu cannot bear all the blame, since there are so far no visible signs that Arafat was willing to be particularly flexible on specific issues, except that he was willing to stay at Wye no matter how long it took to reach a comprehensive agreement on all interim issues.

It seemed at week's end that Netanyahu believed that the way to succeed at the summit was to reestablish agreement between the U.S. and Israel on a limited accord, or else to realize that reaching a comprehensive deal would be a grueling process requiring many days at Wye, with the risk of angering some supporters at home. It seems that a limited agreement won't lead to an implementation of the second pullback or to greater security cooperation. After a few headlines, this will become obvious as a "victory" of political convenience. Hence, the true choice seems to be between reaching a full agreement, or having one side go home early and take the blame for the summit's failure. Tough decisions, not gimmicks, are needed from both sides now.



(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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