The signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP) in September 1993 signaled a major breakthrough in the deadlocked Washington talks. Hopes and dreams blossomed when Rabin and Arafat shook hands and exchanged tentative smiles on the White House lawn.
Eighteen months later, matters look different. The negotiations remain locked in a vicious circle. Palestinians are frustrated and angry. Instead of the redeployment of Israeli forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and elections for the autonomous council, they are witnessing an intensive campaign of settlement expansion, confiscation of more lands, the tightening of the closure on the OPT and the isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territories, and severe economic deterioration. This was exploited by the Islamic and radical national opposition to gain sympa¬thy and support for violence and suicide attacks against Israelis, as well as to undermine Arafat; It's leadership and to incite the public against it.
On the other hand, Israelis feel more vulnerable than ever. Their personal security is threatened, even in the heart of their own cities, by the increas¬ing violence and suicide attacks that have taken the lives of scores of Israelis. The peace process did not bring them peace or security. Indeed, right-wing Israeli demonstrators are carrying placards saying: "This peace is killing us." The right-wing opposition is capitalizing on the deteriorating internal security situation to discredit the Labor government and to insti¬gate public opposition. The result is a unique coalition between the Palestinian opposition and the Israeli opposition, both of them trying to undermine the peace process and to stop the peace talks. The victims are the majority, on both sides, who have, until now, supported the peace talks and believed they would bring solutions.

A Different Alternative

This tragic situation raises the question: what next? The peace process has failed to prove its viability. Should the parties look for another alternative? What can be done to ease tension and isolate extremists on both sides?
After the Washington signing, Israelis and Palestinians were ready to take risks for the sake of peace. But instead of empowering the transfer of authorities to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the talks about the changeover were bogged down in haggling over details. Rabin, to please his opposition, gave his housing minister a free hand to expand settlements in the West Bank.
It could be argued that the sympathies of Prime Minister Rabin lie with the national-right wing camp. Also, by nature he is suspicious, hesitant and indecisive. He lacks the political boldness to make painful decisions that will help him along the road to peace that still lies ahead. To free himself from the timetable agreed upon in the DOP, he declared that "dates are not sacred." He started dragging out the negotiations and cost the peace process its momentum.
On the other hand, it took the PNA a long time to put its house in order.
Handling the affairs of an "Authority" proved to be different and much more difficult than handling the affairs of an organization. Institutionalizing and democratizing the system made the PNA miss several opportunities to project a positive image of itself and its leadership in the face of the Israeli public opinion which is subjected to a continued right-wing campaign slan¬dering the PLO and even character assassinating Arafat and his leadership.
The delay in signing the Cairo agreement slowed, perhaps even froze, the whole process. The PNA was busy reorganizing itself, while the Palestinian opposition was busy preparing itself for violent attacks against the Israelis, intending to abort the peace process and undermine the PNA.
Israeli policy in the OPT including settlement activities, closures and the iso¬lation of Jerusalem, embarrassed the PNA and made it difficult for it to engage in a confrontation with its opposition. Though a fight against the vio¬lence of the opposition had in actual fact been waged since the outset, it was not forceful enough, and was accelerated only recently.

One-Sided Separation

And so, the political and economic deterioration continued. Rabin's recent talk of "separation" adds fuel to the fire. There cannot be a serious plan for disengaging the Palestinian entity from Israel, as long as the separation is imposed on one side only. Israelis and Israeli products can move freely across the Green Line. Israelis can live in areas which are supposed to host the PNA in the near future. They can still obtain more land in the OPT and build more housing units. Even at checkpoints, there are special lanes for their cars to keep them from having to wait in long lines, unlike the Palestinians with their hard-to-obtain permits, wishing to enter East Jerusalem or Israel over the Green Line.
It should be noted at this point that Arab Jerusalem, occupied in 1967, is part of the OPT. The Israeli decision and practice to isolate it from the rest of the territories under the guise of "separation" is becoming a nightmare for every Palestinian and the source of a great deal of suffer¬ing. The closure of the city has caused tremendous damage to the cul¬tural, economic, and social life of Palestinians there, and the 200,000 Palestinians who live in the villages and neighborhoods around it. They depend on the city for their work and all aspects of their daily life, but they need a permit to enter it as they are considered West Bank resi¬dents. East Jerusalem, the centre of economic, cultural, educational, reli¬gious and social life for the Palestinians, has become a city suffocating under the heavy burden of the continued siege imposed since March 1993, providing grounds for the denunciation of the peace process and Arafat's leadership.
Practice has proved different from theory. Political separation is wel¬come as long as it is along the Green Line (the 1948 truce lines), and leaves Jerusalem, an integral part of the area occupied in 1967, outside the siege. But Rabin would discriminate, giving full freedom of movement to those Israelis living in the OPT and turning the Arab-populated areas into a Soweto. Furthermore, this "separation" and closure violate and block the implementation of the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO, specifically, the Cairo agreement and the Paris economic accords which stipulate free reciprocal movement of goods and persons between Israel and the PNA area. Such a discouraging start destroys any nascent confidence between the two sides.
For the time being, the outlook is discouraging. Terror is dictating the rhythm of developments in the peace process. The Israeli public is show¬ing an increasing dissatisfaction with Rabin's government, while the Prime Minister also has problems within his government and party. Members of his cabinet are addressing the angry people in the street and are adopting militant stances critical of their own government. They are trying to aban¬don the sinking ship in an attempt to salvage their personal career in the coming elections at the expense of the present government.
Arafat, on the other hand, has started to crack down on the violent opposition on his side. A massive campaign of arrests, raids and forcing opposition offices to close is earning increasing criticism of the peace process from his own people. Some of his critics charge that the peace process was a big mistake and accuse him of having allowed himself to be manipulated into legitimizing the Occupation and all of its oppressive practices.
Palestinian leaders who have free access to Arafat and have a chance to debate with him, affirm that Arafat believed this to be a historic oppor¬tunity for his people to establish their own state. He understood very well that if his people failed to take the matter into their own hands this time, there would never be another chance. It is very obvious that Arafat is the owner of the house and a strong leader. He is demonstrating seri¬ous concern for the fate of the peace process, but he needs a positive change on the part of Israel to prove to his people that he was not wrong when he chose this course of political negotiations as a means to achiev¬ing a peaceful settlement to the conflict. He also needs it to justify the gradual harsh policy he has started to adopt against the violence and ter¬rorism of his opposition since he has, so far, failed to convince them to vent their disagreement in more democratic ways.

Two Options

In this situation, there are two major options. Both look difficult at the moment, but neither is impossible. The two options are based on the belief that the peace process is irreversible. Implementing parts of the DOP and the Cairo agreement, the creation of the PNA, and its different organs, have produced a new reality, making it impossible to set the clock back to pre-Oslo.
The first option rests on the admission that the delay in addressing the delicate and difficult issues of Jerusalem and the settlements did not make talks on the interim arrangements any easier. On the contrary, the settle¬ments have proved to be a major obstacle, before any agreement on the redeployment of the Israeli forces in the OPT, and as such, they have pre¬vented any progress in the negotiations over elections. Expanding many of the existing settlements forced this issue on the agenda of the peace talks. Continued Israeli efforts to alter the demographic balance in Arab East Jerusalem, by adding Jewish neighborhoods to the city, or by settling in the heart of Arab neighborhoods, has also forced the issue of Jerusalem onto the negotiating table, making it incumbent to address these two major problems without further delay.
The inevitable conclusion is that the interim period must be discarded. It is neither feasible nor necessary to continue talks in this atmosphere. Talks should start now on the permanent status of the OPT: all files must be opened, and all demands should be placed on the table, so that a compre¬hensive settlement to the conflict can be worked out.
Supporters of this option argue that it would save time, suffering and destruction on both sides. It would help overcome the difficult issues and remove the obstacles which prevent any real progress. And it will thus restore public support for the peace process.
The second option is to accelerate the talks on the interim arrangement and at the same time, start parallel talks about the permanent settlement. This will help save time and maybe contribute to the success of the whole process. This option demands courageous effort on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and the maximum possible level of self-restraint.
The Palestinian National Authority must guarantee, through agreements with its opposition, or by force, that violent attacks against Israelis stop/ or at least be reduced to a minimum because they cause damage to the national interests of the Palestinian people. If the PNA does its utmost, even should it not succeed in totally stopping terrorist attacks, it will help Rabin's gov¬ernment to take drastic steps to give impetus to the process to move for¬ward, and to reduce violence and tension on both sides.
Rabin's government must, first of all, freeze all settlement activities in the OPT, including those in Arab East Jerusalem, which is an integral part of the territory occupied in 1967; lift the closure imposed on the OPT and open the gates of Arab East Jerusalem to Palestinians, and start the imple¬mentation of the second phase of the interim settlement as agreed upon in Oslo and Cairo. Such steps will help to revive the economic situation, which will have an overall positive impact on the peace process and its chances for success.

Elections - a New Era

In this spirit and context, a sincere process of transferring power and authorities to the PNA must start and should continue. The infrastructure must be put in place for Palestinian elections to be held very soon. Elections for the PNA council will mark the beginning of a new era in the OPT. This type of progress will restore hope to the Palestinian people, enhance the popularity of the peace process, and isolate the extremists, preventing them from jeopardizing the gains achieved through political negotiations.
Neither party must forget, under any circumstance, that in the DOP, they committed themselves to recognizing their legitimate, mutual political rights and to striving to live in peaceful coexistence.
They committed themselves too, to a historic reconciliation and to achiev¬ing a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement. No Israeli should be deceived into believing that such a peace can be achieved without ful¬filling the Palestinian claim to statehood, or without a just solution to the issue of Jerusalem, respecting and fulfilling the Palestinian national and religious rights in the city. This is the only guarantee to the stability and durability of any peace settlement in the Middle East.
If Rabin opts for "peace," he might probably lose the 1996 elections, but he will achieve peace and go down in history as a courageous peace¬maker. If he does not, he may well end up losing both peace and the 1996 Israeli elections. If he keeps wavering in between, Israelis, rather than voting for an ersatz rightist government, such as Rabin's, might just go for a genuine right-wing one.
It could also be argued that if Arafat does not help Rabin embrace one of these two options, he may end up losing his partner in the peace process and find himself facing a much tougher negotiator, a Likud partner who may try desperately to reverse the process, or transform it into a municipal autonomy.
All of this is based upon the assumption that the densely populated Gaza Strip, with all its poverty and hopelessness, will not sink into complete dis¬order. The overcrowded cities and the camps of the Strip are inevitably a breeding ground for violence, terror and despair, which will certainly expand across the border into Israel.
Maybe this is a good reason for the leadership on the two sides not to allow the peace process to fail. This is the only remaining hope.