Comment: Making A Bad Deal Even Worse

On Monday Dennis Ross concluded his latest Middle East trip with a farewell speech by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh who pronounced the visit a failure, because - according to Naveh - Ross was unable to get the Palestinians to agree to the Israeli "security" requirements which are now supposed to precede Israeli implementation of any redeployment. Naveh said that Netanyahu and Ross did not discuss second phase redeployment percentage figures. Yasser Arafat said that the Palestinians have not yet received any official American suggestions or ideas, while Dennis Ross said that both sides were given the American ideas in January and that in this visit, discussions focused on possible modifications based on previous and current reactions from both sides sides to the ideas.

In fact, the American ideas - which are almost as far from the Interim Agreement as the Israeli position is - have not been accepted by the Israelis or the Palestinians. However, neither side is able to reject the US proposals out of hand, and so instead each used specific tactics to prevent their success without having to openly reject them.

The Israelis, who are totally unhappy with American ideas, adopted the tactic of insisting on first getting from the Palestinians a commitment to implement the security measures Israel is demanding, the kinds of measures which are clearly offered only as a stalling tactic. And so, most of the discussions between Ross and Netanyahu concentrated on these Israeli security needs, that have been adopted by the Israelis as prerequisites for any dealing with the issue of redeployment size. This position was clearly reflected in Ross' demand that the Palestinian leadership give him a clear "yes" - which is useful in persuading the Israelis to accept his ideas.

The Palestinians, who are also extremely unhappy with the American proposals and are unable to accept them under any circumstances, nevertheless are in no position to openly reject them. So their tactic was to avoid giving a precise response and to continue to talk about complete Israeli adherence to the Interim Agreement, waiting and hoping for an Israeli "no", which appeared likely and which would have spared the Palestinians both the problems of rejection and problems of acceptance of these ideas.

Dennis Ross, who arrived initially with ideas which fall short of the agreement while aiming to present a compromise between the Palestinian and Israeli positions, was maneuvered into negotiations with the Israelis. The end result was the modification of his ideas to reach a compromise between the initial ideas - which were already a compromise - and the Israeli position. Aware that it would be difficult to obtain the Palestinians' agreement and knowing how vulnerable they are to pressure from the Americans and the Arabs, Jordan and Egypt were used as auxiliary sources of leverage. Jordan' s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Annani met with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah last Saturday, to convey the message - from President Clinton via King Hussein - that Arafat not waste the opportunity offered by the American ideas. Egypt, in an attempt at "positive" interference, invited a Pa lestinian delegation, Nabil Sha'ath and others, to talks in Cairo, and, in recognition of the influence on Arafat, Dennis Ross wrapped us his visit to the Middle East by meeting with President Mubarak.

It remains unclear whether the Americans were really trying to close a deal in this recent visit, merely trying to "keep the thing moving," or - more likely - trying to fill the vacuum which has been so inviting to the Europeans in the last several weeks. In any case, one of the approaches taken by Ross in this visit was to try and separate the "easy" things on which agreement might be reached from the more difficult issues. This approach aimed at giving the impression that some progress at least is taking place, although even to give this appearance is difficult, because the gap between the two parties is huge and the American initiatives are not backed by political weight, especially vis-a-vis the Israeli position, which is far from the original signed agreement.