Pact brings Mideast peace process new life

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat struck a number of important compromises last week that signal a committed determination to restart the Mideast peace process. Less than a year ago, Netanyahu threatened to curtail historic efforts aimed at cultivating peace in the region during his campaign to replace slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. His promise to prioritize Israeli security and his pledge to refuse to bargain land for peace directly challenged the 1993 Oslo accords calling for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s newfound willingness to retract the hard-line approach he espoused during the campaign and embrace peace initiatives despite the harsh objections of his more hawkish colleagues in the Israeli Cabinet speaks to the sincerity of his unfolding desire to renew talks with the PLO.
The compact established between Netanyahu and Arafat went beyond their initial goal of restating the terms of the Oslo agreement. Israeli soldiers are already beginning their redeployment from the West Bank city of Hebron. Arafat has agreed to provide security for the operation, assuming civil responsibility for the town’s 140,000 Arabs. Israel also agreed to a three-stage withdrawal from rural areas of the West Bank. In return, Arafat extended the time Israel has to complete the withdrawal process to August 1998 rather than September of this year, the date originally established in the Oslo accords.
Necessity has driven both leaders to compromise. Neither Netanyahu nor Arafat want to preside over what has become a Middle East in diplomatic retreat, overwrought with terrorist fundamentalist factions and mindless bloodshed. Their courage and flexible diplomacy in the face of dangerous oppositional forces both within and from outside their respective governments demands international recognition and support.
Conciliation and agreement between Netanyahu and Arafat could not, however, have been achieved without U.S. prodding and the pivotal intervention of Jordan’s King Hussein. In fact, a crucial component of the new deal lies not in the detailed specifications for redeploying Israeli troops from Hebron, but in the U.S.-crafted “for the record” memorandum that accompanies the agreement. Dennis Ross, the Clinton administrations’s special envoy to the region, drafted the important accord that King Hussein brokered in his meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat. The binding document demands that Arafat meet Netanyahu’s security demands. It also contains Netanyahu’s pledge to commence redeployment from the rural areas of the West Bank within two months and his agreement to participate in future negotiations.
Netanyahu and Arafat are now expected to demonstrate to each other and the world that they can be trusted to carry out the terms of the new agreement. A number of problems, however, still lie ahead. Questions about Palestinian statehood remain, as do disputes over land and water rights. Further conflict and terrorist activity are certain to materialize in the coming months. Encouraging the successful evolution of the peace process will undoubtedly require further assistance from both the United States and Jordan. Nevertheless, the new agreements have thankfully returned the flailing Middle East to a more secure track toward peace.