Background / Clinton Plan Resurrected in Labor Debate

The peace package that former President Bill Clinton offered at the doomed Camp David talks is undergoing resurrection in the hands of Labor chiefs, as the basis of a strategy to ride a peace train to power in national elections.

The peace package that Bill Clinton served up at the doomed Camp David talks is undergoing resurrection in the hands of Labor chiefs, as the basis of a strategy to ride a peace train to power in upcoming elections.

In a desperate July, 2000 bid to crown his presidency with a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, hands-on mediator Clinton urged Yasser Arafat and then-Labor prime minister Ehud Barak to agree to a far-reaching outline for partitioning the Holy Land into separate Israeli and Palestinian states, with a divided Jerusalem serving as the capital of both. The talks quickly broke down, however, and the failure was to lead directly to the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in more than a generation.

The unveiling of new Labor peace plans Wednesday coincided with a vocal effort by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to demonstrate support for the long-buried peace process, and sharpened the diplomatic debate between the left-center Labor and its right-center senior coalition partner, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud.

Egged on by ex-prime minister and Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu, Cassius to Sharon's Caesar, the Likud Central Committee stabbed its popular party chairman in his broad back Sunday and twisted the political knife, voting overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution formally ruling out any future Palestinian state.

The symbolic Likud resolution, which flew in the face of polls showing broad Israeli public support for statehood under a future peace treaty, opposes the bedrock Palestinian demand for statehood regardless of whether the PA meets Sharon's stringent demands for reforms, or even if a moderate alternative Palestinian leadership should arise.

Sensing an opening, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer chose the Wednesday night Labor Central Committee meeting to unveil a diplomatic outline of his own, closely inspired both by the Clinton framework and by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace offering Israel full normalization with the Arab world in exchange for full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

In the mirror opposite of the Likud Central Committee meeting, Labor was expected to try to push the envelope as far left as possible.

The launch of the peace plan was accompanied by a potentially crucial new political constellation within the habitually contentious Labor. Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, having buried the hatchet with Ben-Eliezer in a bitter struggle for Labor's top spot, acted as point man for the party chairman ahead of the Wednesday night debate. The smooth-talking Burg took to the airwaves to defend the still-undisclosed peace plan, in particular its most sensitive point, the concept of shared sovereignty in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City.

Under the plan, neither Israelis nor Palestinians would be granted sole sovereignty over the Holy Basin, sacred to three religions as the site of Judaism's Western Wall and the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary. In order to avoid an "eternal argument," Burg said, the Holy Basin would be given a "special status, which makes sovereignty neither ours nor theirs, at least for the present. Rather we, they, and the international community would safeguard the status quo that exists in the Old City today. Under the present difficult situation in which we find ourselves, this solution is the only one - no division of sovereignty, rather taking the issue out of the discussions on sovereignty."

Ben-Eliezer and Burg together hammered out the program, which rests on three elements, a continued "war on terror," "security separation" from the Palestinians, and a final-status agreement which is said to also envision negotiations aimed at establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel annexing settlement blocs near the Green Line border with the West Bank.

The plan is also said to include the dismantling of Gaza Strip settlements and isolated settler enclaves in the West Bank, with the Jewish state ceding unspecified Israeli territory to Palestinian control in return for the annexed settlement zones.

The reported plan was quickly blasted Wednesday by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert as a "gimmick" to differentiate Labor from its right-wing coalition partners. "This is non-serious, irresponsible lunacy, that explains why Fuad (Ben-Eliezer) will never be prime minister," Olmert said. "I am sorry for him and for the Labor Party for having sunk to this level, where they think they'll gain something for giving up sovereignty over the Temple Mount."

Burg countered that the concept of shared sovereignty was the only possible solution to the Middle East's most emotionally charged debate.

Labor can ill afford to lose further electoral support, as Sharon's approval rating is at an all-time high and polls have shown that no Labor candidate can come close to defeating him at this point.

Criticism of the plan was also felt within Labor, as MK Haim Ramon, 52, the 65-year-old Ben-Eliezer's expected rival for party leadership, said it was unrealistic in an atmosphere of open warfare to base a peace plan on a negotiated settlement. Ramon's plan centers on the principle of unilateral separation - the setting of a border without negotiations with the Palestinians.

Ramon, Burg's estranged former political soul mate, said that peace plans based on the Clinton and Saudi plans were "all well and good, but no one - neither Fuad (Ben-Eliezer) nor others, is answering the question of what happens in the absence of a partner. There is no partner now, and apparently, neither will there be one in the foreseeable future."

Unless Labor's electoral standing improves markedly, the party's alternative peace plans may never amount to more than a footnote - or a lever that could provide Ben-Eliezer a justification for leading the party out of the government. The plans are expected to be brought before Labor activists for a vote in early July. If a dovish Labor initiative proposal is subsequently rejected by the Likud-led coalition, Ben-Eliezer could bring down the government, forestalling challenges to his leadership and causing early elections.

Ben-Eliezer has a particular interest in not allowing the government to run its full term, with elections slated for the fall of next year, notes Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar. Despite widespread dismissal of Ben-Eliezer's political skills, "Should there be early elections, Ben-Eliezer may well surprise everyone and keep anyone else from challenging him."

If, however, the elections take place as scheduled in October, 2003, other Labor candidates could emerge, among them Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, Eldar says.

In any event, "Despite the considerable temptation to stay in his chair, it will be very difficult for Ben-Eliezer to criticize the prime minister after having sat at his side and serving him as defense minister in the cabinet until the very end."