Revisiting Wye River
On 4 September 1999, President Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak signed “The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum on Implementation Timeline of Outstanding Commitments of Agreements Signed and the Resumption of Permanent Status Negotiations.” President Mubarak of Egypt, who hosted the signing ceremony, King Abdullah of Jordan, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also signed the Memorandum as witnesses.
The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum was built heavily on the Wye River Memorandum and largely remained within its parameters. The signing of the Memorandum came eight months after the freezing of the Wye River agreement by former Prime Minister Netanyahu and two months following the inauguration of Prime Minister Barak’s government.
The few weeks that preceded the signing witnessed intensive Israeli efforts aimed at avoiding redeployment from almost half of the percentage of territory agreed upon in the Wye River Memorandum. Such efforts were made under the guise that such redeployment would be incorporated in the final status negotiations. This maneuvering also aimed at evading the third phase of redeployment, which is to be negotiated by a Special Committee. The irony is that, throughout the negotiations, the Israeli side threatened to implement the Wye River Memorandum to the letter if the Palestinian side did not accept the modifications suggested by Israel. Such pressure was probably directed, among other things, at not following through with the release of prisoners agreed upon by President Clinton, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Arafat, since that was not incorporated in the text of the Wye River Memorandum itself. In short, Prime Minister Barak was trying to signal to the United States, as well as the international community as a whole, his commitment to the Wye River Memorandum, while at the same time trying to introduce a major departure from the agreement.
By the end of the recent negotiations, however, the understanding regarding the concept of redeployment remained as it was – separate from the permanent status negotiations and including exactly the same percentage of the territory. That percentage involves a redeployment from 11.2% of the West Bank, in addition to another 7.2% that will be transferred from an Area B designation to Area A under full Palestinian control. The third phase of further redeployment was also reaffirmed in the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. The change made in this regard involved the timeline for redeployment, which was stretched to extend over 4 ˝ months, until 20 January 2000, when that second phase of the redeployment will be concluded. The other change was that the redeployment is now planned to take place in three stages instead of two stages.
The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum gives prominence to permanent status negotiations, but again without linking it to the redeployment, which should be carried out as agreed. Possibly the most important new element in the Memorandum is that it extends the commitment of the parties to the existing agreement until September 2000, the date when “the two sides will conclude a comprehensive agreement on all permanent status issues.” Another new concept included in the recently signed Memorandum was the introduction of a “Framework Agreement”, which the two sides are to make a determined effort to conclude in five months from the resumption of the permanent status negotiations. This means that such an agreement should be reached by February 2000.
The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum does also include a part on the release of prisoners. However, the number of those prisoners decreased from the original 750 prisoners to be released to 350. A committee is to recommend additional names for release and an Israeli promise was secured for the release of more prisoners before the next holy month of Ramadan (December). The agreement also revived the Committee on Displaced Persons (Palestinians who fled Palestine in 1967 as a result of hostilities), which shall resume its activities on 1 October 1999.
With regard to the issues concerning prior commitments made between the two sides, such as the Southern and Northern Safe Passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the Gaza Seaport and the Hebron (Al-Khalil) issues, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum is more specific than the Wye River Memorandum. It presents clear steps to be taken on specific dates, something that will likely make implementation of the text on those issues easier and more difficult for the Israeli side to avoid.
As for security issues, the Memorandum reiterates the responsibilities that are already being implemented by the Palestinian side under the previous Memorandum. On the issue of unilateral actions, Sharm el-Sheikh repeats the same text as that of Wye River, but without a heading, which obviously means that the Israeli side rejected the inclusion of any text explicitly or implicitly dealing with illegal settlement activities. This, however, is something that was dealt with, among other things, in a separate letter from the U.S. Secretary of State to President Arafat, in which she reaffirms the continuing position of the U.S. Administration viewing the settlements as destructive to peace.
The U.S. remained engaged throughout the process in spite of its attempts to downplay the role played by the Middle East team and the Secretary of State. The European Union (EU) was also active and the Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the capacity as President of the EU, sent a letter to President Arafat conveying the Union’s position.
Taken as a whole, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum was not a big achievement and the Israeli tactics prior to the signing of the Memorandum made it even harder to receive it with fanfare. Nevertheless, the fact that the Memorandum has been signed with the new Israeli Prime Minister, who heads a presumably different government, and the fact that implementation does seem more likely at this time, generating the possibility for real progress towards a different and better situation, are all reasons for guarded optimism in the Middle East peace process.
(For the full text of the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, please visit our web site at www.palestine-un.org and select the Middle East Peace Process category.)