Back on the rails

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 September, 1999, 12:00am

It could be said of the latest peace accord reached by Israel and Palestine yesterday, that the easier bit is over. Fraught and tortuous as the process has been since former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed out of his commitment on the Wye River Memorandum, far thornier issues lie ahead. Already, the new agreement has run into trouble from critics on both sides who accuse their leaders of a climbdown. Such is the nature of the negotiating process.

Without the hard compromises made by Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, the impasse left by Mr Netanyahu would never have been bridged. The two men will now need even greater courage and determination to proceed to the next stage in the talks. As in the setback to the peace process in Northern Ireland, the last hurdles are often the hardest to surmount. But, within 12 months, Mr Barak and Mr Arafat have undertaken to broach such deeply sensitive and emotive questions as the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood. The key achievement of the weekend has been their achievement in making a breakthrough towards rebuilding trust and restoring the prospect for a more conciliatory attitude in future talks.

The Sharm El-Sheikh accord will begin with Israeli troop withdrawals as soon as next week. It also gives the Palestinians more say over which prisoners will be released. The Israeli Prime Minister has redefined the territory involved in the accord so that he is more comfortable with the strategic implications.

So far, Mr Barak has lived up to hopes that he would prove to be a leader with a real commitment to peace whatever the immediate difficulties. Progress now hinges on the willingness of Syria and Lebanon to join in the talks.

After such a promising start by the Israeli Government, other Middle East powers now have an obligation to maintain the dynamic of the process set back on the rails by the Prime Minister and Mr Arafat.