Mideast peace process turns into theater of the absurd

It is getting harder and harder to know whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is tragedy or farce. It's probably a bit of both, but the evidence this week favors Option 2, because all the learned commentaries about what the London meeting did or did not mean cannot disguise the growing absurdity of the situation.

Consider the following:

*The central issue in the current impasse is the size of Israel's second West Bank redeployment. There has been no first redeployment.

*According to Israel's interpretation of the Interim Agreement, it is entitled to decide unilaterally from how much territory it will redeploy. Nevertheless, Israel is negotiating this redeployment. And it is negotiating not with the Palestinians but with the United States, the very same country whose secretary of state last year endorsed the Israeli interpretation.

*The United States, though negotiating with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, has proposed a redeployment of 13 percent — a figure much closer to Israel's original offer than to the original Palestinian demand. Yet the Palestinians have accepted the proposal and Israel has not.

*The whole world already knows about this proposal, but the U.S. administration has toyed with the idea of making it public in order to pressure Israel to accept it.

*There is more opposition to this idea in the American Congress than there is in the Israeli Knesset.

*So far, Israel has resisted the American proposal on the grounds that while 9 percent is prudent and 10 to 11 percent might be tolerable, 13 percent represents an unacceptable risk to Israeli security. It is not easy to understand what the critical difference is, because no one outside the negotiating rooms (and maybe not even inside) knows exactly which 2, 3 or 4 percent is at stake.

*At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly urged the Palestinians to begin permanent-status negotiations, while promising Israeli voters that he will safeguard Israeli security. Will more than 13 percent in a final agreement not endanger Israeli security, or does this imply a permanent-status map of somewhere between 11 and 13 percent?

*At this point, the Palestinians refuse to enter permanent-status negotiations, although such negotiations were supposed to have begun as soon as possible after the start of the interim period and not later than May 1996 (when a ceremonial session was actually held). This is ostensibly in order to deny Israel the pretext of bypassing a third redeployment, although there is no reason why Yasser Arafat could not do what Yitzhak Shamir admitted he intended to do at Madrid — negotiate inconclusively for years.

*Meanwhile, Arafat insists that he is not asking for the moon, only that Israel implement the agreements it has already signed. But Israel has never undertaken any commitment about the specific extent of redeployment.

*Netanyahu is also constrained by coalition considerations. If he gives in on 13 percent, the hard-line right-wingers have threatened to bring down the government and give Labor and the left a chance to return to power. For some reason, Netanyahu appears to take this threat seriously, at any rate, far more seriously than the threat of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai or The Third Way to leave the government if he does not carry out a second redeployment.

*Even if the right-wing threat were serious, Netanyahu could still placate his coalition critics if the United States persuades the Palestinians to offer a quid pro quo for a Netanyahu concession on territory — by promising again to do the things they already promised to do in the Declaration of Principles, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, the Cairo Agreement and the Hebron Agreement.

*In addition to recycled carrots, there is much speculation about recycled sticks. If Netanyahu does not agree to an acceptable redeployment before the interim period expires in May 1999, the Palestinians are threatening to do again what they already did in Algiers over 10 years ago — make a unilateral declaration of independence.

*The announced invitation to Netanyahu and Arafat to come to Washington this week was immediately described as "make or break." The same thing was being said the last time Netanyahu and Arafat were in Washington — but that time, Monica Lewinsky got in the way.

*If Netanyahu and Arafat had gone to the White House together, the visit would probably have been the "last chance" for the peace process, which is why it probably didn't happen.

*But even if they had gone and President Clinton couldn't announce an agreement, then things would have gotten very nasty for a while, tensions would have risen and some more blood would have been shed. Then there would have been another high-level diplomatic intervention and another "last chance."

*After one short visit to Cyprus last week by U.S. special negotiator Richard Holbrooke, the Cyprus peace process was declared dead. Greeks, Turks and Cypriots of all persuasions still have a lot to learn.