There is a general consensus in Palestinian and Israeli political and intel¬lectual circles that the peace process is passing through a deep crisis, and not just a tactical one. Each side attempts to saddle the other with the blame for the failure of the negotiations. In fact, the cause of the crisis lies in the very structure of the interim agreement.
The crux of the problem is the staged approach based on a differentiation between transitional stage and a final settlement, and this cannot be rectified by cosmetic changes. The only way out of this predicament is to tran¬scend the interim stage and to embark directly on negotiations for a final settlement.
The aim for an interim stage was threefold: First, it was a confidence¬building measure, providing a joint and common language to pave the way to success in the real and difficult negotiations - those of the final set¬tlement. Second, it aimed to convince each side of the good intentions of the other. Finally, it set out to better the economic conditions of the Palestinians, providing proof of the advantages of peace, and to improve the security of the Israelis for the same purpose.

Opposite Results

Yet, almost a year after the implementation of the interim agreement, real¬ity indicates that it has achieved quite the opposite of what was intended. For one thing, Israeli security conditions have deteriorated and Palestinian economic conditions have not improved. Instead of a growing feeling of mutual confidence, there is a spate of mutual recriminations, with an increasing number of people on both sides calling, for one reason or anoth¬er, for suspension of the negotiations. All this raises a big question mark: how relevant or useful is the interim stage? It should be noted, of course, that negotiations about interim arrangements are also in essence negotia¬tions about a final settlement. Each side is trying to influence the final out¬come in their discussion of what purport to be interim arrangements.
In the Washington negotiations, the divide between Palestinians and Israelis stemmed from one root: the disagreement over the concept of an interim stage. For the Palestinians, it is an irreversible step toward one final outcome, the application of U.N. Resolution 242, i.e., complete Israeli with¬drawal from the land occupied in 1967.
On the other hand, for the Israelis, the interim stage was meant to leave all options open for the final settlement. And so, in this stage, arrangements can be reversed.
This basic discrepancy explains the failure of the parties to reach an agreement in nine rounds of talks in Washington. In contrast, the reason they did reach an agreement in Oslo was because they satisfied themselves with principles and did not explore details which would have inevitably led to confrontations akin to those which eventually caused the breakdown in Washington. In Oslo, it was believed that the impetus generated by the Declaration of Principles (OOP) would guarantee the creation of a climate conducive to negotiations. And because it lent itself to interpretations in harmony with the respective understanding of each side, the OOP enjoyed wide support among both the Palestinian and the Israeli public.

A Revised Balance of Power

A major disparity in the negotiating balance of power emerged in the Cairo discussions on the implementation of the OOP in May, 1994. There the Palestinian side lost an important trump card, considerably diminishing its maneuvering capability. First, by concluding a separate agreement with Israel, the Palestinians were deprived of the cohesiveness in the Israeli¬Arab negotiating process. Development in negotiations between Israel and the other Arab countries could be achieved since progress on the Palestinian track ceased to be a condition for progress on other Arab tracks.
Secondly, the secret character of the Oslo agreement, reached in private, cost the Palestinian side its public support. The Palestinian negotiators thus experienced a sense of isolation vis-a-vis their own public which, oth¬erwise, would have been a great supportive factor.
Finally, reaching an agreement outside the framework of the interna¬tional patronage of the Washington negotiations deprived the Palestinian side of the recourse to international legitimacy. Indeed, it has permitted the international powers to absolve themselves of responsibility toward the Palestinian problem by creating the impression that the problem had, for all practical purposes, been solved. All that was left was to offer financial support.
This revised balance of power, then, has evidently worked in Israel's favo!", enabling it to steer the negotiations in Cairo in a direction entirely in line with the Israeli understanding of an interim stage as spelled out in the DOP.
The Cairo agreement stripped the DOP of a great deal of its balanced con¬tent. Many aspects of this have been widely discussed and analyzed, such as the withdrawal from Gaza, which became redeployment of Israeli troops; or the right to legislate, which was made conditional on Israeli con¬sent; or, indeed, the committees of coordination and cooperation which gave Israel, in many areas, the right of veto on the authority transferred to the Palestinians.

A Timetable Is Imperative

The most dangerous element in the Cairo agreement which has subse¬quently dictated the course of events, is, undoubtedly, the fact that it stripped the Oslo accords of one of its main features: the time link between its various components. The OOP was an integrated deal, tied to a tight schedule: it starts with the withdrawal in Gaza and Jericho, followed three months later by thp transfer of part of the powers. At a specific date, elec¬tions were to be held, preceded by redeployment of the Israeli army. This was to be followed by the transfer of the remaining powers and a second stage of redeployment, and after not more than two years, negotiations for a final settlement were to start with an agenda already decided in the OOP.
However, the Cairo agreement neglected to tie the Israeli military with¬drawal from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip with a time frame for the other components of the OOP. The Gaza Strip was one of the worst security burdens for Israel anyhow. Thus, once again, the Palestinians lost an important playing card, tipping the balance in favor of Israel and diminishing their negotiating leverage.
Israel, in contrast, freed itself from the burden of security in the Gaza Strip without committing itself to a time framework for the implementa¬tion of the rest of the OOP. On top of that, Israel threw the onus of security in the Gaza Strip on the shoulders of the Palestinian National Authority - Israel had failed to achieve that stability throughout the twen¬ty-seven years of Occupation.

A Vicious Circle

This new reality led to a vicious circle. It gave rise to Palestinian-Israeli ten¬sion and conflicts, on the one hand, and to a Palestinian-Palestinian conflict on the other, splitting the Palestinian people among themselves. Some argue that the Occupation has not ceased, and that the present arrange¬ments do not serve Palestinian interests nor are they likely to evolve towards the realization of their aspirations. For them, the struggle against Israel must still continue, including armed resistance, be it in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel proper. Others see themselves committed to the agree¬ment with all the responsibilities it entails, a fact which leads them to con¬frontation (sometimes violent) with the first group.
This situation has exacerbated Israel's security condition, weakening the Israeli leadership in the face of its own public and opposition. To weather the criticism and acquire more authority for the resumption of the negoti¬ations and the implementation of the agreements reached so far, Israel opted for a tougher stance: thus the role attributed to the Palestinian National Authority and Palestinian Police in the area of security, especially the safety of all Israelis in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.
There ensued a major loss of credibility in the peace process among both the Israelis and Palestinians. This, naturally, provides the opposition on both sides with ammunition, forcing their respective leaders into more intransigence.
While the conviction exists that, in spite of real current difficulties, both Israelis and Palestinians are committed to a peaceful resolution to conflicts, the question poses itself about the possibilities to extricate the peace process from its crisis and restore its momentum before it is too late. This is especially urgent since conditions conducive to both parties, as well as international and local conditions, might not remain favorable for long.

A More Realistic Approach

If the crisis, as we have seen, devolves from the staged approach to the solution, the only outlet is to reconsider this particular approach and to effect structural changes in the peace process. A new approach would have to ensure that all elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the Occupation, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, the future of the Palestinian entity and security on both sides, be placed on the negotiating table.
This position is supported by the following arguments: First, experience on the ground has proven the inadequacy of the interim stage which shows the old-new Israeli mentality of exploiting its power advantage for its own ends.
Second, the political process does not take place in a vacuum, and ele¬ments hostile to a political solution on both sides are working very shrewd¬ly to exploit all possibilities to abort the chances for peace. Their best ammunition is the failure of the present process and the dwindling confi¬dence of the public.
Third, a final settlement has a greater chance of success than an interim solution, as the latter does not incorporate basic changes encouraging the parties to accept compromises. In contrast, a final settlement will comprise essential changes enticing both sides to make concessions.
Fourth, putting all final problems on the negotiating table ensures enor¬mous chances for flexibility, creativity and trade-offs.
Fifth, a knowledge of the eventual outcome of the ongoing political process builds mutual confidence, facilitates transitional arrangements accept¬able to both sides, and curtails the power of the opposition on both sides.
Sixth, dealing with the problems of a final settlement is proof of greater realism. The real causes of the conflict have to be confronted; avoiding them will not make them go away. The settlements and the problem of Jerusalem are living proof of the daily friction arising from a staged approach to the solution. The presence of settlements in the Gaza Strip is a major factor impeding the success of the interim arrangement there. In the West Bank, settlements are blocking the implementation of the second stage of the Oslo agreement.
However, there is ample evidence that Israel has already delineated all the features of the final status. The recent developments in expanding set¬tlement activity are neither arbitrary nor subject to settlers' wishes, but are in synch with the Israeli concept of a final resolution on borders, the set¬tlements and Jerusalem. The connection of some of the settlements in the West Bank into agglomerations forming geographic extensions of Israel not only ensures their continued existence, it also paves the way for reconsideration of borders.
In conclusion, there can be no peaceful settlement without the elimina¬tion of the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: in essence, the injustice which befell the Palestinian people when their land was occupied and they were stripped of their national identity and turned into refugees. To reach a solution, all issues have to be addressed directly, openly and coura¬geously, without the zero-sum mentality.