A Step Backward, A Step Forward 

            After a long and harmful interruption in the Palestinian-Israeli track of the peace process, the two sides reached an understanding regarding the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum.  The break in negotiations was the result of Israeli attempts to evade obligations under the Memorandum and other existing agreements.  This included attempts to unilaterally undertake a third stage of redeployment from 6.1% of the West Bank and attempts to forego the third, and much more substantial, phase of redeployment. 

            The recent understanding was reached after two meetings between President Arafat and Prime Minister Barak, with the participation of the U.S. Special Envoy to the Peace Process, Dennis Ross in the second meeting.  At a later stage, both Arafat and Barak flew to Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with President Mubarak in recognition of the role played by Egypt, in cooperation with the role of the U.S., to overcome the stalemate and reach this understanding. 

            With this understanding, the two sides solved the issue of the third stage of redeployment after the specific areas were discussed, and the third phase was reaffirmed and will be implemented in June 2000.  The two sides also agreed to engage in intensive negotiations, which are to take place in Washington, D.C. with the assistance of the U.S. 

The negotiations will aim at reaching a framework agreement by May, all on the basis that the final settlement agreement should be concluded by September 2000.  In addition, the understanding also covers important issues such as the release of prisoners, the opening of the northern safe passage, and the release by Israel of Palestinian money in the form of taxes and other payments due. 

All of this is good news.  However, in light of previous experiences with this Israeli government, it has become very hard to be really optimistic with a government that takes one step forward followed by one step backward or vice versa.  That may be better than the Netanyahu government, which routinely chose one step forward and two steps (or more) back.  But it is not good enough to ensure the successful conclusion of the peace process by the agreed time.

  What is needed is real change in Israeli thinking and practices, a change in the Israeli strategy.  The Palestinian side will remain committed to the existing agreements and will do its utmost to reach a final settlement by September 2000.  This date is absolutely final. The rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to an independent state, to be preserved, must be realized one way or another by that date.