In S.F., top Israeli politician calls for Oslo extension

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The Oslo Accords are so far behind schedule that the May 1999 deadline for wrapping up final-status talks is no longer feasible, Knesset member Yossi Beilin said this week in San Francisco.

Instead, the top-level Labor Party politician and former deputy foreign minister asserts that the deadline for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should be extended to January 2001.

Falling after Israel's next round of national elections, he said, such an extension either would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another shot at resolving the current deadlock or would allow a new premier to take over negotiations.

Beilin spoke Tuesday evening alongside Faisal Husseini, a close aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 13 signing of the historic peace accords.

Though generally a political ally of Beilin, Husseini deflated the suggestion of an extension. Husseini asserted that the longer the peace process is drawn out, the more likely it is Islamic fundamentalists will take over the existing Palestinian Authority and return to violence as a means to achieve the goals of independence.

The pair's appearance at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, which drew an audience of about 325, was co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Palestinian American Congress, the Ramallah Club, the Women's Interfaith Dialogue on the Middle East and the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.

The audience was on its best behavior. The speakers arrived amidst a motorcade of police cars with lights flashing. A multitude of guards with communications devices coming from their ears wandered around, talking into their shirt cuffs. But there were no demonstrations or hints of trouble. There wasn't even a metal detector as people entered the room.

Both Beilin and Husseini agreed that the promise held in the historic handshake between the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat has not yet been realized, but they did assert that the ensuing ties have had other significant effects.

"The five-year commemoration of Oslo reminds me about a real breakthrough that happened then and which I believe is totally irreversible," Beilin said.

"Almost nobody in Israel would say we cannot talk to Yasser Arafat, who is the archrival, and most of the Palestinians would say, `Yes, there is Israel. We cannot ignore it. It is a state. It is a Jewish state whether we like it or not. And with it, we have to make peace.'"

Husseini agreed that in principle, if not in fact, the Palestinians and Israelis have now recognized each other's right to exist.

"I believe it was a very difficult moment for Yasser Arafat to sign that agreement. But it was clear for Yasser Arafat, for us, for the Zionists that all these years of fighting each other, no one of us will succeed in getting rid of the other and the only way is to try to find a way how to live with each other," Husseini said.

The Palestinians, he noted, had to accept that they might get only 20 percent of the land they believe belongs to them.

Both speakers agreed the biggest obstacle to peace is Netanyahu's Likud-led government.

Another obstacle is Jerusalem, the city the Palestinians also want as their capital.

Husseini proposed a dual capital with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, west Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and free access between the two.

"Jerusalem [can be the] warm sun of the Middle East or the black hole of the Middle East that can swallow everything including hopes for peace," Husseini said.

Beilin called two capitals within Jerusalem inconceivable, but he added that the Palestinians and some Israelis are coming to some common ground on the issue.

Perhaps Beilin's most telling point about Oslo's impact came from a recent encounter with Jordan's King Hussein.

About a month ago, Beilin and a small delegation of Israelis visited Hussein at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where the king is undergoing treatment for cancer. Beilin described the visit as very emotional.

"Suddenly he asked us whether it would be possible to go back to the third of November — a date before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — in 1995. There was silence in the room. We didn't know what to say.

"How can you go back to a certain point in history? But I would like to be in a situation today whereby I can say something like that wouldn't be impossible. That eventually, if we are courageous enough…if we remember the price which we paid in order for us to make peace with our neighbors and the people who sacrificed their lives in order to make peace, we will be able to go back to November the third."