Archive for Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Mideast pact was lacking

September 17, 2003


The scene that night in the East Room was one that once had seemed unimaginable: President Anwar Sadat of Egypt embracing Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel before a beaming President Jimmy Carter.

The occasion, 25 years ago today, was the historic Camp David agreement, calling for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement within five years.

A quarter-century later, that final peace remains elusive.

Indeed, the apparent collapse of the latest U.S. initiative -- the "road map" proposed by President Bush -- underscores the absence of the two most essential ingredients for resolving the age-old conflict.

One is the need for strong and evenhanded U.S. leadership. The other is both sides' willingness to accept short-term compromises in the long-term interest of peace.

Bush, unlike the three presidents who made the most progress in the last 25 years, has been more unreservedly supportive of Israel than any president since Ronald Reagan and only intermittently has agreed to pressure its government.

In addition, hard-line elements control both Israel and the Palestinians, reducing prospects for a compromise.

U.S. efforts in the strategically and economically vital region date to Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. They expanded notably with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" after the shocks of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the Arab oil embargo.

The crucial impetus came in 1977 when Sadat offered to visit Israel and Begin issued an official invitation. When their initial efforts faltered, Carter invited them to Camp David.

For nearly two weeks, there were reports of coolness between the two. On a field trip to the nearby Gettysburg battlefield, reporters observed little personal rapport

In the end, a desire to end 30 years of enmity, and some prodding from Carter, produced the stunning agreement. It called for a formal Israeli-Egyptian treaty that was signed the following year and a complex series of steps during a five-year "transitional period" that suggested -- but didn't promise -- a Palestinian state.

In a sign of future trouble, the agreement barely survived a dispute over how long Begin had agreed to stop new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. U.S. pressure kept the talks on track, but the issue has persisted.

Ultimately, Arab resistance to the peace process slowed the effort. When Reagan took office, he opted to re-evaluate the whole effort. The following October, Sadat was assassinated, and hopes for progress vanished.

The situation remained largely in limbo until the first President Bush, after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, launched a new effort that bore fruit under his successor, Bill Clinton. It helped to produce agreements in 1993 between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, a year later, between Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein.

But the peace process again faltered after Rabin's 1995 assassination, the election of hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu and an upsurge in anti-Israeli terrorism.

Clinton's last-ditch effort failed when Arafat rejected a U.S. plan that would have led to a Palestinian state in control of most of the West Bank. Amid renewed Palestinian violence, Israel elected Ariel Sharon, a symbol of hard-line resistance to peace for two decades, as prime minister.

Bush, who formed a friendship with Sharon before both won power, embraced the new Israeli leader, shunned Arafat and sought to stay aloof from direct involvement in talks.

But mounting violence forced him to become engaged, though the recurring cycle of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis and counter-attacks from Sharon's government undercut U.S. efforts to foster serious talks.

Earlier this month, the Palestinian prime minister who had been named at the United States' urging, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned. Arafat picked Ahmed Qureia, regarded as a moderate, as his successor. But there are doubts about his authority and his ability to control terrorists. And with Bush even less likely to pressure Israel on the eve of a U.S. election, chances for early progress are dim.

At the time of the Camp David agreement, many thought its five-year timetable was unrealistic. But few of us imagined that, 25 years later, so many issues would remain unresolved and possibly insoluble.

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