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Mideast in Crisis - 2001-09-19

Long-time observers of the Middle East are saying that prospects for peace are fading even more, following the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington. They say the U.S. government, with its attention focused on finding those responsible for the attacks, will be unable to devote the attention needed to finding a way to stop the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. With little hope of peace in the immediate future, many of these observers are looking back at what they now believe was the best opportunity for peace, a summit between Israelis and Palestinians that took place a little more than a year ago.

Many a night in Jerusalem this past summer, you could hear the thunder. If it had heralded a rain that would break months of searing drought, Israelis and Palestinians might have been ready to rejoice. But the skies have been brilliantly clear this summer, and the sounds come from much closer to the ground, from Israelis and Palestinians battling over the land they both regard as holy.

The gunfire comes from the sun-dried, rocky slopes of the West Bank, from Bethlehem in the south or from Ramallah in the north, echoing upward and finally reverberating in the heart of Jerusalem. The sounds sometimes rattled the windows of homes, even in suburbs close to the city center. What is perhaps most frightening of all is that these once-terrifying sounds have become routine.

In the West Bank, the sounds of battle seem to have been accepted as the background noise of daily life. In the midst of such violence, it is becoming harder to recall that, it was only a summer ago, that the prospect of peace shimmered on the horizon.

It was then that U.S. President Clinton and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators closeted themselves away in cabins at Camp David in July of last year. Many now believe those talks were the ultimate Middle East mirage, the critical point at which illusions were finally shattered about the possibilities for a genuine reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

The Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, showed he was willing to give up the whole of the Gaza Strip and at least 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The 10 percent of the West Bank that Israel would retain was to include key parts of the West Bank, such as Jewish settlements near Jerusalem. Israel would also keep control over vital sources of water. But perhaps what was most stunning of all, Mr. Barak also became the first Israeli leader to consider dividing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Such proposals, however, were not enough to win the approval of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who held out for more. In doing so, many Israeli analysts say, he sacrificed an opportunity to found a state for his people, a state that would most certainly have gained immediate international legitimacy.

One of the Israeli negotiators at Camp David, Dan Meridor, told VOA the Camp David summit became a political laboratory for testing the view of left-wing Israelis that lasting peace could be negotiated with the Palestinians. "I thought, let's take part in that experiment. And had Arafat said 'yes,' the whole world would look different now for us, and 10 times more so for them," said Mr. Meridor. "But, unfortunately, when he said 'no,' and cornered himself and the rest of the process [in] such a position that violence became the only option - that he chose, unfortunately. I think that he caused great suffering, and made a big mistake for his own people."

However, Saeb Erekat, one of the leading members of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David, insists that Israel is to blame for the failure of the talks. He says that the Palestinians had already sacrificed too much when they gave up their dream to claim all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This was the area held under the British Mandate rule of Palestine, before the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Mr. Erekat says Palestinians had reconciled themselves to controlling only 22 percent of that area, namely the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. He says that, when the Israelis asked the Palestinians to make more concessions, that is, to accept even less than 22 percent of the territory, they placed at risk any hope for an historical resolution of the conflict. But, he also says that, what was agreed at Camp David should remain accepted by both sides. "The Israelis have forgotten one major fact. We began these negotiations by accepting and recognizing Israel within boundaries of 78 percent of mandatory Palestine [the area that existed before the establishment of the Jewish State], something that should stand. Our recognition of Israel should stand," Mr. Erekat said. "We recognized Israel to live in secure boundaries in 78 percent of mandatory Palestine. This should stand. We should not go back on any of this, should not go back [on] anything that we negotiated, on the concessions that we gave."

Mr. Arafat was also steadfast in his refusal to compromise over political control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary, as the Palestinians call it, inside Jerusalem's walled Old City. The site is sacred to Jews and Muslims. The shrine is where the Jewish holy temples stood in biblical times, making it the most holy place in the Jewish world. But for centuries it has also been home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque, making it the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Barak attempted to reconcile this difficult issue by proposing that the Palestinians be sovereign over the compound from the ground up, while Israel would have sovereignty underneath, where some believe there may be remnants of the Jewish temples. But Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi says Mr. Arafat could only go so far. If his supporters believed he conceded too much to the Israelis, on the Noble Sanctuary, or anything else, there would have been a backlash from the Palestinian side. Mr. Arafat, he says, would have been signing his "death warrant."

Moreover, Mr. Abdul Hadi told VOA, the Palestinians were not prepared for a final agreement with Israel at the time of the Camp David summit. "People were not ready. Not the leaders, nor the people, not the man on the street, were ready for an historical reconciliation," he said. "For me, as a Palestinian, my identity as Palestinian, my belief in Palestine is so deep-rooted, you cannot now tell me, let's close the file, and your recognition, acknowledgment of Israel is final. It can't be."

What happened at Camp David, rather, what almost happened at Camp David, is a subject that also preoccupies Israelis. Yossi Klein-Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report magazine. He has no doubt that Camp David represented one of the greatest missed opportunities for peace in the Middle East. "There were two moments in the history of this conflict when the international community tried to reach a serious and fair compromise," he said. "The first happened with the U.N. partition of 1947, when the U.N. voted to divide this land into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, and the second time occurred at Camp David."

The failure of Camp David cost Mr. Barak his job - and brought Ariel Sharon to power. Mr. Sharon, despised by the Palestinians since he drove the PLO guerrillas - including Mr. Arafat - out of Lebanon nearly 20 years ago, has a much narrower vision than Mr. Barak of what a Palestinian state might be.

But if the historical opportunity has passed, is there any way to halt the movement toward greater disaster? Most Israelis and Palestinians don't believe there is. After almost a year of steadily escalating fighting, people on both sides doubt their leaders are capable of negotiating an end to the conflict.

If they expect anything, Israelis and Palestinians expect things to get worse.