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High time Mideast reviewed the Oslo Accords

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SALZBURG, Austria — As events in the Middle East spiral out of control, as the Israelis threaten to expel or assassinate Yasser Arafat, as the United States vetoes a U.N. resolution designed to halt such actions, and as the Palestinians revert to their worst inner chaos, it might seem that reviewing the Oslo Accords would be of little benefit.

But when Yossi Beilen, one of the leading authors of Oslo, spoke here on the 10th anniversary of the accords earlier this month — and when we continued in an interview afterward — it was clear how much could have been achieved in the much-criticized attempt to bring peace to the Middle East.

"What was unique about Oslo was that for the first time, Israel had a partner," Beilen, a liberal Labor Party Knesset member today who was then deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the International Press Institute meeting here. "That was the revolution of Oslo.

"Both sides were on the verge of giving up on their dreams. The Palestinians understood that the whole idea of an Islamic state would be over because they would have recognized a Jewish state. But Oslo also meant Israel losing its claim over the West Bank; recognizing a Palestinian state would end the raison d'etre of the right in Israel."

Once the accords were signed on Sept. 13, 1993, and Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the former general, was empowered to carry them through, Beilin went on, the left-of-center alliance in Israel was "too silent, too happy." They thought it was all "irreversible."

"The same thing happened on the Palestinian side," he went on. "Arafat's Fatah organization used its own machinery against Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

"But when Rabin was killed by an Israeli rightist (in 1995), the spirit went out of us. Without him, it was impossible. A kind of shelter was gone. We lost him and we lost the peace process. And when (Benjamin) Netanyahu became prime minister, the first thing he did was to stop Oslo. It meant the suicide of his dream of greater Israel."

Beilin then outlined several important perceptions that are at odds with the stories being put forward today by the hard-line government of Ariel Sharon.

After Oslo broke down under the opposition of the Netanyahu government, and after the Palestinians wantonly refused the Barak government's generous offers in the summer of 2000, Beilin says, the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon with 3,000 policemen to the Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims, was the "trigger that determined the date of the new Intifada."

"I don't believe that without Sharon there'd be no Intifada, but he determined the timing. And there's nothing more important than timing in life. If that had not happened that September, we could have kept negotiating . . . "

The spring before the Temple Mount incident and the descent into the most bitter conflict yet in the Middle East, one of the leading and most moderate Palestinian military men came to Beilin and told him that they were planning a new Intifada. Why?

The Palestinian told him that the Oslo years of peacemaking (there were virtually no violent incidents during that stage) had left the moderates vulnerable. He told Beilin, "There is no way we can fight our own extremists except to go out into the streets again with weapons. You Israelis must do something."

Now, Beilin said, those moderates believe they "blew it" by fighting on their own radicals' terms, instead of Oslo's — but it is too late.

Meanwhile, Beilin believes that Prime Minister Sharon, who, like Netanyahu, came to power determined to kill the Oslo Accords — and thus any peace involving a Palestinian state — does have his own plan. It is totally different from President Bush's "road map" for peace, which even the American president only tepidly embraces.

"At the end of the day, Sharon sees a Bantustan," Beilin said, "but he believes that they didn't work in South Africa because they were not given enough independence. For many years, he's been dreaming about the Bantustan idea, and Bush's 'road map' was tailor-made for him.

"I believe he'll just go through the first phase, then shuffle his feet as much as he can. He understands today something he didn't before — that the Bantustan solution can never be a permanent solution. But it can be an interim solution that can go on for many years. His preference is to do nothing — and he thinks there will never be a third phase so long as he's alive."

So there you have it. Beilin is one of the most respected Israelis in the world, a man of integrity and meticulous analysis.

The message he brings — and the analysis that I also see as true — is that, far from being some inevitably doomed failure, Oslo not only could work, but was working. It took men and women of flesh and blood, working cynically and feverishly, to destroy it, and history will someday call them to account.

Universal Press Syndicate