A Small Step for Middle East Peace...
An October 1998 summit at Wye Mills, Md., generated the first real progress in the stymied Middle East peace talks in 19 months. With President Bill Clinton mediating —and a late assist from an ailing King Hussein of Jordan— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat settled several important interim issues called for by the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The Palestinians agreed to remove language from their founding charter that called for the dismantling of the Jewish state; Israelis agreed to cede an additional 13% percent of the West Bank.
But several highly sensitive issues —Palestinian statehood, the drawing of borders, and the status of Jerusalem— went unbroached, although only six months remained before the Oslo Accord deadline of May 4, 1999. If significant progress were not made by then, Arafat threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, which would inevitably lead to retaliation by Israel.
Although Israel did complete the first of three withdrawals from the West Bank on November 20, released 250 Palestinian prisoners, and authorized the opening of the Gaza airport, the peace accord began unraveling almost immediately. Disagreement over the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners led to violence in the West Bank and Gaza, for which each side blamed the other. Netanyahu pushed the possibility of peace further out of reach by issuing a series of additional demands to the Palestinians that had not been discussed at Wye. On the Palestinian side, their laxness regarding security, the continued violence, and demonstrations replete with incendiary rhetoric hardly represented conciliatory signs pointing the way toward peace.
To buttress the flagging accord, President Clinton visited the Gaza strip on December 15, becoming the first American president to set foot on Palestinian-occupied land. His visit strengthened U.S.-Palestinian ties and served as a symbolic gesture auguring positively for a future Palestinian state. The visit coincided with the vote of the Palestine National Council to formally eliminate language from the organization's charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.
Netanyahu found himself attacked from both sides of the political spectrum —the left accused him of intentionally thwarting the peace process and the right accused him of betrayal, having elected him in the belief that he would never give up Israeli territory. Even though Netanyahu reneged on the second Israeli withdrawal, scheduled for December 18th, by then he had irreparably alienated his right wing base. In mid-December Parliament voted to dissolve Netanyahu's government and hold elections in the spring, putting the peace negotiations on hold.