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Jewish World Review / May 13, 1998 / 17 Iyar, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Negotiating in reality, not wishfulness

PARIS -- A Sinn Fein conference in Dublin last Saturday demonstrated the fundamental requirement in solving deeply rooted political conflicts.

Both sides must deal with the other as it is, not as they might wish it to be. Its legitimacy in terms of its own constituency must be conceded.

This why delegates to the Dublin convention approved the peace compromise concluded April 10 between Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland's principal unionist groups. The Sinn Fein, political wing of the terrorist IRA, now is on record as accepting the principle that Northern Ireland will not be united with the Irish Republic without the electoral agreement of its Protestant and pro-British majority.

An equivalent willingness to deal with the other side in terms of its own commitments and interests existed until recently between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. This is no longer the case.

The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, and the British government have both made an equivalent compromise to that of Sinn Fein. Despite hostility from much of the Unionist electorate, including terrorist groups, Mr. Trimble and Prime Minister Tony Blair have treated Sinn Fein and, implicitly, the terrorist IRA, as legitimate negotiating partners. They did this as an act of realism.

The Clinton administration pushed them to do so. Washington initially dealt with Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams for purely domestic political advantage, but President Clinton understands that if peace is declared in Northern Ireland he can take part of the credit. This would pay off for the Democrats among a wider electorate than the New York and Boston Irish.

Former British Prime Minister John Major was a victim of the unwillingness of a part of his Conservative government's majority to admit that peace in Northern Ireland required talking with Sinn Fein. Even though Mr. Major launched the talks with the Dublin government that led to the current agreement, a minority of his supporters forced him to demand that the IRA first turn in its weapons ("we will not talk under terrorist threa"). This was a position of high righteousness but zero realism.

Because of Mr. Blair's ability to override Unionist objections, and despite the continuing resistance of armed minorities in both the IRA and Unionist camps, the Northern Ireland outlook now is brighter than at any time since the Irish nation's partition in 1922.

Israel and the Palestinians were on the same road to peace until a year ago. They now are off it. The Norwegian-initiated Palestinian-Israeli peace process begun in 1993 required both sides to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other's cause, however hateful their past actions had been.

As in Ireland, important factions of militant opinion on both sides considered this betrayal. But until Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder by a Jewish extremist in 1995, Israel's leaders were able to carry Israeli opinion with them, and Yasser Arafat was mostly able to control Palestinian extremism.

However, the prolonged negotiating program of the peace process, meant to give the two parties room for reconciliation, actually gave enemies of agreement time to consolidate.

This time factor was ignored by Shimon Peres when he became prime minister after Mr. Rabin's assassination. Whether it was by weakness, pride, or because he was too civilized a man to exploit electoral emotion, he failed to seize the tide of Israeli opinion in 1996 to put through a final settlement with the Palestinians.

That failure brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power. In February 1997 Mr. Netanyahu told the international press at Davos what he already had told Israeli journalists. He denied the legitimacy of any Palestinian claim on Jerusalem, and he opposed creation of an independent Palestinian state.

He said that he would concede self-government to Palestinian localities but would insist on Israeli supervision of Palestinian international and security relationships. Expanded Jewish colonization of the West Bank would be secured by a network of military-controlled roads separating the Palestinian enclaves from one another.

This was a repudiation not only of certain previous agreements but of that bond of respect -- grudging though it may have been -- that had previously underlain negotiations.

Since then, Mr. Netanyahu has actually been negotiating with the U.S. government, which has been trying without success to obtain from Israel terms for the Palestinians which the other Middle Eastern countries, and West European and Asian Islamic governments, might consider evidence of American good faith as a Mideast mediator.

Mr. Netanyahu's rejection of all Mr. Clinton's proposals coincides this week with his visit to the United States to address a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the principal organization of the Israeli lobby in the United States. Mr. Clinton might reasonably see in this a deliberate provocation.

However, the president owes nothing to Palestinians and a great deal to pro-Israeli voters. Congress is dominated by the Israeli lobby's influence in congressional constituencies and over Senate campaign finances. It is hard to believe that Mr. Netanyahu will not win his showdown with President Clinton.

The result of such a victory will be bitter for both Israel and the United States. It will require a repression of the Palestinians which Israel may, or may not, be able to sustain for the long run. It will also permanently intensify hostility toward the United States throughout the region.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.