Peace Negotiations: The Middle East and Northern Ireland
1997 News of the World
Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in 1997 were repeatedly undermined by both sides. Although the Hebron accord was signed in January, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the city, the construction of new Jewish settlements on the West Bank in March profoundly upset progress toward peace. Terrorism erupted after a brief one-year absence, with radical Hamas suicide bombers claiming the lives of more than 20 Israeli civilians and wounding hundreds in bombings in March, July, and September. Targeting a crowded Tel Aviv caf and a busy Jerusalem marketplace among other places and indiscriminately killing men, women, and children, the new attacks again forced Israelis to live under the mortal threat of terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat of lax security, retaliated with draconian sanctions against Palestinians working in Israel, including the withholding of millions of dollars in tax revenue, a blatant violation of the Oslo accords. Netanyahu's commitment to peace also appeared disingenuous when he persisted in authorizing right-wing Israelis to build new settlements in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, demonstrating that while he professed to pursue a land settlement with Palestinians, he was in fact engaging in hawkish expansionism. Arafat, meanwhile, seemed unwilling or unable to curb the violence. With some contending that peace was impossible in the face of Palestinian terrorism and others maintaining that terrorism was the by-product of stalled peace talks, there was little hope of moving forward.
Adding to the tensions, two Mossad agents, from Israel's legendary secret service, botched an assassination attempt on Hamas's political leader in Jordan on September 25, an act that simultaneously exhibited Israel's own violent tactics and alienated Jordan, Israel's sole Arab friend. In exchange for the captured Mossad agents, Netanyahu freed a number of Palestinian prisoners, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas's spiritual leader. Yassin and Arafat are long-time rivals and ideological opposites, and it is thus uncertain how this new mix of leaders will affect the peace negotiations.
Northern Ireland has made a significant step in the direction of stemming sectarian violence. The first formal peace talks began on October 6 with representatives of eight major Northern Irish political parties participating, a feat that in itself required three years of negotiations. Two smaller Protestant parties, including Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, boycotted the talks. For the first time, Sinn Fein won two seats in the British Parliament, which went to Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and second-in-command Martin McGuinness. Although the election strengthened the IRA's political legitimacy, it was their resumption of the 17-month cease-fire, which had collapsed in February 1996, that gained the IRA a place at the negotiating table.