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The Wye Bother Summit

By Phyllis Bennis



It's hard not to wonder whether it really matters. Yes the stakes are high. Peace in the Middle East, after all, or the threat of new violence or war. But still. It's hard not to wonder whether, despite the intense and personal involvement of President Clinton, King Hussein, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, CIA director George Tenet and others, the Wye summit ever really held any potential to move the parties closer to peace in the region.      

Why? The basis for pessimism rests squarely in the significance, or lack thereof, of the main negotiating items on the table. For the Palestinians, a fiercely-resisted 13% redeployment of Israeli troops. For Israel, a so-far unobtainable Palestinian commitment to security. There are a host of secondary items, but those are the key issues. The problem is that even the most comprehensive agreement on those fundamental issues simply won't provide a serious foundation for the so-called final status talks that are to follow, and are supposed to shape a permanent, comprehensive and lasting peace.

For months, press accounts have been filled with breathless will-they/won't-they accounts of the 13% Israeli redeployment. Over and over we have heard reporters and columnists remind us that with that additional 13%, the Palestinians would have "full or partial" control of 40% of the West Bank. That's not bad for an interim period, one might think. The problem is, it's not true. As of today, the Palestinians have full authority in just 3% of their land. On another 27%, yes, they share "partial" control with Israel, but what does that really look like on the ground? The Palestinian Authority, in that 27% (called Area B) is allowed to run the schools, pick up the garbage, deliver the mail. But Israel retains control of security, which means Israeli troops remain on patrol on the roads, surround the scattered pockets of Palestinian-run land with military checkpoints, impose closures, prevent the movement of Palestinians within or between towns.

The now-famous 13% will come out of the 70% of West Bank land (Area C) still fully under Israeli occupation. But only 1% will move to the category of full Palestinian control. The other 12% will be shifted to the "shared" Area B. So the few Palestinians living there (very few - the area is largely empty) will have the new right to their own garbage collection and post office, but Israeli control of the roads and checkpoints will remain unchanged. And the land under real Palestinian authority will grow only from the current 3% to a whopping 4%. Yasir Arafat's acceptance of the U.S.-initiated 13% proposal is hardly something most Palestinians will see as a significant move towards ending Israeli occupation.

As to Israel's demand for Palestinian security guarantees, what is astonishing is Israel's success in redefining security. Traditional diplomatic agreements deal with national security, involving respecting borders, preventing invasion or military assault. In its early years those were exactly Israel's security concerns. But now, as the only nuclear state and the most powerful military and economic country in the region, Israel has changed its tune. Over the last several years, Israel has redefined the security it demands from the Palestinians to mean absolute personal safety for every individual Israeli. No government, of course, no matter how powerful, can provide such a guarantee. Israel itself was unable to prevent all individual attacks or acts of terrorism within its borders or in the Palestinian territories when its occupation was absolute. Even the U.S. could not make such a guarantee to the residents of Oklahoma City. So how realistic is it to expect the Palestinian Authority, with its limited, derivative jurisdiction, to be able to prevent every act of terror by desperate, hopeless individuals?

In fact it isn't realistic at all. Certainly there are specific things that can be negotiated, certain commitments the Palestinians can make. But they cannot provide a personal safety shield to every Israeli. And the specific pledges being asked of them threaten to further erode the PA's already shaky commitment to democracy. Israel demands, for example, that the PA do what Israel's military occupation forces have done for years, and continue to do in most of the West Bank and much of Gaza: arrest hundreds or thousands of Palestinians solely based on their claimed association with the Islamist organization Hamas, regardless of any involvement in military or terrorist attacks. In the United States, our federal courts have ruled for almost 50 years that exactly this kind of arrest based on political association is unconstitutional.

And bringing in the CIA to work with the Palestinian security agencies in determining who should be arrested, who released from prison, is no answer. Given the Agency's own no-longer-secret history of aiding, or at least looking the other way, while CIA-backed authorities massively and violently shred the human rights of civilian populations from Chile to the Shah's Iran, we can hardly have confidence that Tenet's spooks will encourage stronger respect for democracy in their junior counterparts.

Israel also calls on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle the entire political apparatus of Hamas. The problem is that aside from its separate military wing, which has indeed carried out horrifying terrorist attacks but which remains deeply hidden underground, Hamas provides a significant part of the already-insufficient social welfare system available to Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Israel won't, the PA can't, and even the under-funded United Nations no longer can provide schools, clinics, hospitals, even food supplements for the impoverished Palestinian population. That leaves only Hamas, unfortunately, to fill a large part of the void. Do Israeli leaders really believe that closing mosque-run schools, thereby throwing thousands of angry young people out onto the streets with nothing to do, will improve their own security?

President Clinton, one White House official told reporters, thinks that "you've got capital, you've got to use it." But in this case using capital means exerting pressure -real pressure- on Israel, the overwhelmingly dominant side of the Israel-Palestinian equation. Israel is Washington's closest ally, and the largest recipient in the world of U.S. aid (close to $4 billion each year). Unfortunately, however, the weakened and electorally-driven Clinton administration has chosen not to use its enormous capital -either financial or political- to exert any serious pressure on Israel. Without that pressure, the claimed potential of the Oslo process to bring a lasting peace to the region will not happen.

The Wye talks created an air of urgency. But unfortunately it reflects the desperation of a photo-op driven presidency, not the urgency of knowing that the key to real and lasting peace might well be at hand. The stakes are high -- but the potential of this summit never matched those stakes. Wye bother, unfortunately, sounds like the right answer.


Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow specializing in Middle East issues at the Institute for Policy Studies. This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun, 25 October 1998.

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