Is it Oslo mania all over again?

Posted: Dec 29, 2004 12:00 AM

HERZLIYA, ISRAEL ? ?The spirit of peace can arise again,? said Terje Rod-Larsen, the United Nations? top representative for the ?Middle East peace process,? evoking the specter of the infamous Oslo peace accords at Israel?s premier security conference recently.

That a UN official would say that is of little surprise.  But when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his deputies sounded a similar theme, more than a few mouths were agape at the Interdisciplinary Center?s annual Herzliya Conference.

Speculation about what exactly Sharon would say in his widely-covered speech Thursday night was rampant.  Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had made news two days earlier with an unmistakably upbeat speech in which he talked of normalizing relations in the not-too-distant future with ten Arab and Gulf states. 

Topping the headlines, though, was the Foreign Minister?s rhetorical olive branch to Syria.  Most remarkably?and most incredulously?Shalom seemed to accept as sincere Syria?s recent overtures.  ?Any declaration of the desire for peace by an Arab leader is a positive declaration,? he said.

Given the quasi-independence of Israel?s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many believed that Shalom had created a new policy goal at his own behest.  But when Sharon spoke Thursday night, the Prime Minister echoed Mr. Shalom, though without identifying Syria by name.

Referring to Syria, the Foreign Minister said, ?A hand outstretched for peace is not to be rejected.?  Near the end of his speech, Sharon talked of potential cooperation with ?moderate Arab states? and said: ?When faced with tranquility and a hand extended in peace, we will know how to react in tranquility and extend an honest and brave hand in return.?

Though the Sharon government?s optimism is decidedly cautious, the death of Yasser Arafat seems to have softened even the hardest of hearts.  Sharon himself was explicit in explaining his newfound buoyancy: ?The most genuine and greatest opportunity for building a new and different relationship with the Palestinians was created following the death of Yasser Arafat, who constituted the primary obstacle to peace.?

Commented one American conference participant over a drink Wednesday night: ?Everybody focused on Arafat for so long that now that he?s gone, the biggest obstacle seems to have been eliminated.?

While careful to stress that the first step in any ?process? is cessation of terrorism, even Sharon signaled the impending start of some form of talks, holding out hopes for eventually achieving ?genuine peace.?

The particulars of how Sharon intends to reach ?genuine peace? were not spelled out by any Israeli government leader in Herzliya, though two Israeli officials did just that for a roundtable of some 30 foreign journalists on the eve of the conference.

As laid out, the blueprint is pretty straightforward: achieve recognition from the Palestinians, then Arab states will race to normalize relations with the Jewish state.  The rough timetable, then, is to move fairly quickly after the upcoming Palestinian elections to reach some sort of accord, then attempt to strike deals with at least a handful of Arab and Gulf states in the next few years.

But to paraphrase many conference participants not enamored with the Sharon strategy: This is not an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but an Israeli-Arab one.

For years, Arab despots have used Palestinians as pawns to divert the attention of not just the United States, the European Union, but also their own people.  Even more fundamentally, however, is the simple fact that the radical Islamists, who enjoy ever-growing power in the Arab world, want to eliminate the Jewish state.

Reality notwithstanding, a revival of the pre-Oslo mindset?minus the delusional optimism?appears to be underway.

The Sharon government is resurrecting the most ominous pre-Oslo ghost: picking a Palestinian ?leader? for the sole purpose of having someone with whom the Jewish state can ?negotiate.?

In a coronation ceremony masquerading as an election on January 9, the Palestinians will go to the polls with one real choice on the ballot: longtime Arafat crony Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

To paraphrase a popular leftist catchphrase about America?s 2000 presidential race, Mr. Abbas is being selected, not elected.  His true base of support?Israel, the U.S., the E.U.?is essentially the same bunch that pulled him and Arafat out of Tunis and foisted them upon the Palestinian people a decade ago.

Just as Arafat delivered an accord as expected at Oslo, all indications are that Abbas will soon sign on the dotted line.  Sharon?s speech hinted at this when saying that he wanted to hand off security enforcement in the territories to a Palestinian government ?which is ready and able to take responsibility.?

To which one conference attendee remarked: ?Most likely Abu Mazen will be ?able? to stop terrorism, but will Arafat?s former partner be ?ready? to??