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Mideast Peace Process Wednesday, 12 July, 2000, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Slow train to peace
Barak, Albright and Arafat
New start? Barak and Arafat under watchful US eyes
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians lies at the heart of the conflicts that have plagued the Middle East during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

The indigenous Arabs of Palestine were the victims of the establishment of Israel in 1948, when most of the territory where they lived was consumed by a new Jewish state and hundreds of thousands of them fled into exile.

The conflicting claims for sovereignty between the Arabs and the Jews, many of whom had themselves fled from oppression in Europe, have created one of the most enduring and tragic disputes of modern history.

Palestinian hopes have faded since May 1999
Ever idealistic, if not realistic, Arab opinion remained divided over whether to accept the "catastrophe" (al-Nakba) of 1948 as an accomplished fact.

But the frontline states - Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - eventually came round to the idea of recognising Israel's right to exist within its 1948 boundaries while trying to negotiate a return of Arab lands captured in Israel's victory in the 1967 war.

Egypt made peace in the 1978 Camp David accords, while Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians began their bids at the Madrid summit of 1991.

The Palestinians' goal is possession of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which have been clasped ideologically, economically and strategically to Israel's bosom for more than three decades.

Hostage to fortune

The process of trading this land for peace and Israeli security has been a long and difficult one, which has been buffetted by winds of discontent blowing from either side.

The Palestinian leadership, under Yasser Arafat, made itself a hostage to these winds by accepting - in secret talks in Oslo in 1993 - a form of normalisation with Israel on the promise of phased withdrawals and future negotiations.

Israeli leaders have been reluctant to give up the land while Palestinian militants have attempted to revive the armed struggle against Israel.

The United States, an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo process, has also found it impossible to untangle its own root-and-branch connections with Israel to fulfil its role as the process' main sponsor and facilitator.

Terror in Israel: Bomb attacks have derailed the process
So Mr Arafat - seven years after Oslo - finds himself hardly any closer to fulfilling his dream of a viable, independent Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as capital.

The first stages of the Oslo process, the so-called "interim period" entailing successive small land transfers, were meant to have been completed by mid 1998.

The final, or permanent, status negotiations, dealing with the more difficult issues like the future of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian refugees, who now number more than 3.5 million, should have been settled by May 1999.

A series of crises, Israeli instigated re-negotiations, and US "interventions to save the peace process" have left both interim and final status tracks years behind schedule.

No new dawn

Despite the enthusiasm and optimism with which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's May 1999 election victory was received in the region and beyond, the Israeli-Palestinian track has found itself in much the same position of deadlock as it was under his supposedly intransigent predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

arrest in Hebron
The daily grind of Israeli occupation
Three months after coming to power in July, Mr Barak committed Israel to continuing the interim withdrawals from West Bank land and reaching a final deal with the Palestinians in September 2000, with a framework agreement due in February.

Both deadlines have been missed, and wide gaps are evident in the opposing positions on most of the key final status issues.

And as during earlier crises, there is not very much Mr Arafat can do apart from marshalling diplomatic support from friendly countries, something Israel has effortlessly brushed aside in the past.

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