Will peace succeed in 5760 despite its enemies

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Can 5760 be a year of true peace? Or will Arab suicide-bombers succeed in marring peace efforts as they have so many times in the past?

By signing the Sharm el-Sheik agreement Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is certainly trying to make the new year one of shalom. Even the deadline to conclude the peace agreement falls before the High Holy Days come around again in 5761.

But Arab terrorists are not the only peril he must face. Many Jewish settlers, too, are going into the new year with the idea that they must stop the peace process at almost any cost.

To meet his self-imposed deadline, meanwhile, Barak will be looking to the American government and U.S. taxpayers for help.

As much as he wanted the United States to step back from the negotiating table, and as willing as the Clinton administration was to oblige, Barak still needed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's help to close the deal last week.

And that is likely to continue despite her optimistic words.

"For the first time in several years, Israelis and Palestinians are working together and solving problems together," she noted. "Relationships of trust and shared conviction are being built through this process. The fact that Israelis and Palestinians negotiated this pact directly is a rich source of hope for the future."

Added Clinton, "We will do everything we can to be supportive all along the way and to achieve our larger goal — a just and lasting comprehensive peace in the entire region, including Syria and Lebanon."

But this time, at least, the agreement was 98 percent negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, with Albright coming in only at the last minute — and that wasn't so much to break a deadlock as to deal with Yasser Arafat's penchant for brinkmanship, trying to extract last-minute Israeli concessions and American sweeteners.

Another factor was the Palestinian leader's desire to maximize Washington's role since he puts a higher priority on his relations with the United States than with Israel. If he is going to make any concessions, he wants both countries to pay.

It's a formula that works. Arafat has successfully sold the same commitments over and over, and it would be naive to think he's ready to close the souk just when the toughest bargaining is about to begin.

In the Sharm el-Sheik agreement he has promised once again to confiscate illegal weapons, turn over rosters of his police force and trim its size, arrest those on Israeli wanted lists, crack down on terrorists, and delay declarations of statehood.

In return, Israel is to hand over another 11 percent of the West Bank to full or partial Palestinian rule, and release 350 prisoners in two groups.

The agreement also sets September 2000 as the target date for reaching a final peace accord.

"The people of the Middle East are ready for the dawn of a new era," Barak said Saturday night at the signing ceremony. "I believe that it is our duty, leaders of all parties, to pave the way…We must rise to the occasion, and for the sake of our mothers, fathers, children and grandchildren, turn the vision of a lasting peace into a reality."

Palestinian spinmeisters trying to tarnish Barak's soaring international image have been telling every journalist and microphone they could find that the real proof is in the implementation, not the promises on paper.

They're right, of course, but the one who needs to hear that most is their own leader.

Still, Israelis bear some of the responsibility for Arafat's disappointing performance. Labor Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were so anxious to expedite the peace process they failed to demand Arafat keep all of his promises, especially the need to crack down on the extremists. That helped make possible some of the worst violence of the decade and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was elected on promises to put the peace process back on track and hold Arafat's feet to the fire. But once in office he seemed intent on throwing both process and Palestinian into the flames.

Arafat began to clean up his act because he feared Netanyahu's real goal was to find an excuse to tear up the Oslo accords. When it became clear to Israeli voters the Likud leader wasn't really serious about making peace, they threw him out.

Barak and Arafat understand that the handling of the latest agreement — including the mutual respect shown by the leaders and their lieutenants — is vital to restoring the trust and working relationship so severely damaged by the Netanyahu experience.

Completing a final peace agreement by Sept. 13, 2000, the seventh anniversary of the historic White House handshake, is an enormous commitment that probably cannot be met. It's a job that was originally to take two years after completion of the easier three-year interim phase that is now in its sixth year.

Negotiators have given themselves 12 months to deal with the toughest questions of all: refugees, borders, water, settlements, security and the most emotionally charged issue, Jerusalem.

Agreeing on the status of the holy city alone could consume a year or more.

Making peace won't be easy or cheap. It will require many more trips by the secretary of state, personal interventions by President Clinton, plus the cooperation of Congress.

Now that the peace process is back on track, lawmakers will have to appropriate the $1.6 billion promised for implementing the Wye accords. Most of that sum –$1.2 billion — will go to Israel for security, infrastructure and redeployment, and the remaining $400 million will be for Palestinian economic development. That money is to be channeled to specific projects through non-governmental organizations because of the endemic corruption and waste in Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

That sum is only a down payment. As Israel and the Palestinians draw final borders, the United States will be asked to foot a large part of the bill, particularly for Israeli defense and redeployment. Palestinians will have to turn to the Europeans, Japanese and the Arab oil sheiks for major help building their new state and its economy.

The American Jewish community will be asked by the Clinton administration and the Israeli government to run interference when anti-peace forces try to get their friends in Congress to put conditions on the aid.

Dealing with those forces will be an important test for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its promises to support the Barak government's peace policies.

Albright has promised Foreign Minister David Levy to help Israel join the Western bloc at the United Nations and raise its level of participation in other U.N. institutions.

She can expect resistance from Europeans fearful of offending their Arab friends who may talk about peace but refuse to help advance it.

Additionally, U.S. clout at the United Nations these days is hampered by Congress' refusal to pay dues and other debts. Albright may turn to pro-Israel lobbyists to press their Republican friends to come up with the money for the United Nations.

Barak also has committed himself to withdrawing Israeli forces from Lebanon in the coming year, but that will depend on progress on the Syrian front. Unfortunately, there apparently was none on Albright's visit Saturday to Damascus, where Hafez Assad appears to have come down with a case of cold feet.

If and when there is an Israeli-Syrian/Lebanese agreement, the increased security costs for Israel could be astronomical, and Uncle Sam will be asked to foot a big chunk of the bill for advanced aircraft, satellite and other electronic surveillance equipment, anti-missile defenses and much more.

Syria can't expect any American military aid but it will be looking for a generous economic package as a symbol of its new American acceptance.

Barak's year of making peace will be tough, challenging and often frustrating. And it will be expensive for American taxpayers, yet a lot cheaper than war.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.