Palestine - How the chance of peace slipped away

Negotiations - A decade ago, the leaders of the two sides shook hands on the White House lawn, and a

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became possible in 1988, the year that Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised the existence of Israel, and so accepted the principle that Israel and a Palestine composed of the West Bank and Gaza should live peaceably side by side. Since a majority of Israelis also accept that principle, its implementation has, at times, seemed within easy reach. It has been attempted, on and off, for the past 13 years, albeit with hideous setbacks. Though still by far the most realistic solution, it is now almost out of sight. How did this calamity come about?

Serious pursuit of this solution began in 1991 when George Bush Sr sought to stabilise the Middle East, torn by the first Gulf war, by summoning a multilateral conference to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian question. The meeting, attended by Arab governments, was convened in Madrid, but held after that in Washington, DC. Because Israel would not allow the PLO to attend, the Palestinians were represented by a joint delegation from the occupied territories and Jordan. The conference meandered on for ten rounds without achieving anything - which was exactly what Israel's prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir,had intended.

The first real breakthrough came in 1993, by way of secret, back-channel Israeli-Palestinian negotiations sponsored by the Norwegian government. Israel's prime minister by then was Yitzhak Rabin, and Bill Clinton was America's president. In a memorable ceremony on the White House lawn, Rabin and Arafat shook hands and signed a declaration of principles. This ushered in the so-called Oslo Accords, a series of interim agreements that were designed to lead by steady, incremental stages to a permanent two-state settlement in five years' time.

The peace process creaked on, with the Palestinian Authority gradually acquiring wider administrative control and a security apparatus. The Israeli military administration withdrew, albeit in bitterly negotiated stages, eventually handing the PA full control of most of the bigger towns, plus civilian control of the smaller towns and villages. But in 2000 the peace process collapsed, and by 2002 Israel had reconquered the land it had handed over.

Many argue that failure had been built into the process from the start. The basic theory behind Oslo had been that the thorniest issues should be left until last. Decisions on the borders of the new state, the status of Jerusalem - which both sides wanted as their capital (see box) - the future of the Israeli settlements, the division of water resources, and the right of the 1948 refugees to return were all to be negotiated at the end of the process, when goodwill and mutual confidence would make tough decisions easier.

Or so it was hoped. The snag was that, by 2000, seven years into the process and long after the planned date for a final settlement, goodwill was notoriously lacking. Both sides were deeply disillusioned. For several years, Israel had suffered from Palestinian terrorism, and blamed Arafat for not using his powers and his police force to bring it to an end. Palestinians, even worse off economically than before the whole process had started, were alarmed that Israel had doubled its number of settlers.

It was then that Clinton summoned Arafat and Ehud Barak (by then Israel's prime minister) to his presidential resort at Camp David for a marathon session to tackle the major issues once and for all. The meeting started on 11 July but collapsed two weeks later in acrimonious failure.

Who was to blame? After the collapse, Clinton pointed the finger at Arafat, and it became received wisdom, in Israel and the United States, that the Palestinian leader was wholly responsible for killing the hope of peace, and allowing the chance of independence to slip through his fingers. Barak had made him seemingly generous territorial concessions (roughly 91 per cent of the West Bank plus 1 per cent "compensation" in land from Israel proper). Even more importantly, Barak had bravely broken the Israeli taboo on dividing Jerusalem, agreeing at least in principle to a shared solution. In return, Arafat not only said no to everything, but provided no counter-proposals.

Arafat was indeed deeply at fault: he was a disastrous negotiator, appearing obtusely negative instead of keeping the talks alive. Fatally, he lost the best opportunity that the Palestinians were to have at least for the foreseeable future.

But there was a little more to it than that. The Palestinians believed that they had already made an all-important (and final) concession by agreeing that Israel should keep 78 per cent of the Palestinian Mandate, and that therefore the whole of the remaining 22 per cent should be theirs. Palestinian public opinion was fiercely against any further dealing or concessions on their "rights". Moreover, the Israeli offers were expressed in vague terms, usually through the mouth of Clinton, and kept changing. If only Arafat had been a less ham-handed negotiator, his strategy of holding out for more might have been justified.

For he did indeed get more. The disaster was that, by then, it was too late. After the collapse of Camp David, the Oslo process was the deadest of ducks. Though negotiations continued, Clinton was on the way out, Barak was on the way to losing Israel's election to Ariel Sharon and the al-Aqsa intifada had started. In December 2000, Clinton summoned Barak and Arafat to the White House and orally outlined his own proposals. Barak appeared to endorse them; Arafat again procrastinated.

A month later, the Palestinians had pulled themselves together. At an Israeli-Palestinian meeting at Taba, in Egypt, the two sides produced an Israeli offer of 94 per cent of the West Bank plus 3 per cent from Israel proper, and an optimistic communique based on what were still unfinished negotiations. But the agreement carried only moral weight, and none at all with Sharon.

The next big effort to end the killing and get negotiations back on track was in early 2003, when the Americans, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia produced the so-called road map. The first stage of the map calls on the Palestinians to end terrorism and to reform their institutions, and on the Israelis to dismantle all settlements erected since March 2001 and, progressively, to withdraw from reoccupied territory. The next stage would be an international conference, and the final stage a permanent settlement. But both sides are stuck at the beginning of the route. As with Oslo, the hardest issues have been left untackled, postponed to an unknown end.

That had been Oslo's undoing. However, a group of respected but unofficial Israelis and Palestinians did get together in Switzerland to tackle these issues. In December 2003 they published their answers in a 50-page document, known as the Geneva Accord, which contains all the fundamental compromises and trade-offs that have long been recognised as necessary. There are big concessions on both sides. The Palestinians would get their land, subject to minor swaps on a one-to-one basis. Israel would not be threatened by the return of the 1948 refugees. Jerusalem would be shared. Signed at an impressive ceremony, the Geneva Accord seemed, at long last, to provide a good basis for renewed talks.

So could this, indeed, be the beginning of the end of the long, frustrating trail that started in 1991? The answer is no. The agreement was unofficial and no negotiations are planned. To underline this, Sharon cavalierly dismissed the Geneva Accord as the most historic, tragic mistake since the failed Oslo Accords. Instead, he continues with his own, strictly unilateral, plans.

After he left office, Shamir said that his strategy at the Madrid conference was to keep the talks going for ten years, by which time the annexation of the West Bank would be an accomplished fact. After 13 years of negotiation, the West Bank has still not been annexed and the basic ingredients of a settlement have been unofficially agreed. But otherwise all is as it was, only worse.

Jerusalem the golden

The status of Jerusalem, a city resonant with symbolism and religious sentiment, remains a huge obstacle. This lovely, stone-built city, resting in the hills, is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital. It is also central to believers in the three monotheistic faiths: for Jews, it is where the temple was built to hold the Ark; for Muslims, it is where Muhammad left his footprints on earth when he ascended; for Christians, it is where Jesus redeemed mankind.

For nearly 20 years, before the 1967 war, Jerusalem was divided in an ugly, restrictive way between east and west, with Israelis barred from their holy places. After the war, Israel reunited the city, declaring it to be its eternal, undivided capital. But at Camp David in 2000, Ehud Barak broke this mantra, agreeing in principle that Jerusalem should be shared, open to both peoples, and that East or Arab Jerusalem (al-Quds) should be the capital of a future Palestine.

Ariel Sharon rejects his predecessor's proposal. But peace-seekers still study the geography, demography and politics of sharing. Most of the holy sites are in the old city, at the edge of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, it is generally agreed, should control the city's Muslim and Christian quarters, and the Israelis the Jewish quarter and the adjacent Western Wall. The Armenian quarter is controversial, as is the degree of Palestinian control over Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount (the site of Solomon's temple is hidden under the compound where stand al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock).

An even greater difficulty is posed by "sharing" the rest of East Jerusalem. After reuniting the city, Israel extended its municipal borders to the east and began building vast residential colonies for Jews on the eastern side of the old line. The policy of successive Israeli governments was to increase the population of Jews in East Jerusalem until they outnumbered the Palestinians. The two are now roughly equal, at roughly 200,000-plus.

The sensible solution is that the Palestinians should control areas where their people live and the Israelis do likewise. Fine in theory, but the Israeli neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem cut fiercely into Palestinian districts. The proposed route of Israel's security wall, now challenged by its high court, would make this tearing apart even more dramatic and damaging. As in the wider West Bank, the Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem would be scattered and non-contiguous, divided one from the other by Israel's new fortresses.