Steven Plaut is senior lecturer in business and economics at the University of Haifa, Israel.
Nearly two years after The Handshake on the White House lawn, how do things stand from Israel's point of view? What are the consequences of the Declaration of Principles (DoP)1 signed on that sunny September day in 1993 by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Chairman Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)? Has it served the country well or badly? Is it the basis of a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict? Can it be sustained?
This is no easy matter to evaluate, in part because of the passions the subject arouses, but also because the DoP has at once brought dramatic rewards and abysmal failure. We shall analyze these paradoxical results, then consider their implications for Israel and the United States.
SUCCESS WITH THE ARAB STATES . . .
The DoP has been a success, at least tentatively, insofar as it produced some normalization in relationships and relaxation of tensions between states in the Middle East.
Israeli leaders now meet directly and cordially with their counterparts from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and Qatar, and have openly visited one another's countries. About half the states of the Arab world have now moved somewhat begrudgingly away from their traditional demonization of Israel and are willing to entertain thoughts about some form of relationship with and legitimization of Israel, even if they have not followed the lead of Egypt and Jordan in establishing full diplomatic ties and formal recognition.
The benefits to date of these ties to Israel have been largely symbolic. Although there have been persistent rumors of an impending deal with Qatar for natural gas, little trade has actually developed between Israel and these countries. The ties have mainly brought psychological gains to Israelis insofar as they constitute the beginnings of real Arab acceptance of Israel as a permanent entity in the Middle East.
In one significant move, the Saudi mufti issued an official proclamation holding that there are no religious barriers to "establishing lasting or temporary peace with Israel."2 Shortly afterwards, however, there were "clarifications," which explained that any accommodation with Israel was due to the weakness of the Arab world and so done -- in effect -- under duress.3 Similarly ambiguous signals have come from Qatar: its officials have held talks with Israel and even hosted Israeli leaders, but the foreign minister also explained these ties away as attempts to "get to know the enemy and how he thinks."4
All of these developments are revolutionary and owe their existence squarely to the Oslo peace process. While the Camp David accord with Egypt was signed in 1978, and so predates these events by many years, it too owed its existence in large part to Israeli willingness to make real concessions to Palestinian national rights.
. . . AND FAILURE WITH THE PALESTINIANS
In contrast, the DoP has failed dismally in its Palestinian dimension. The "liberation" of Gaza and Jericho produced no relaxation of Middle East violence. Quite the contrary, for most of its duration it has produced escalating terrorism. From the Rabin-Arafat handshake until March 13, 1995, 123 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists, compared to 67 for the same period before the handshake.5 This increase consisted almost entirely of murders within Israel, for the numbers within the occupied territories were nearly the same in each period. The streets of Gaza have exploded into a crescendo of hatred toward Jews, with a level of savagery unseen since the end of the Second World War. Things are so bad that press reports indicate the Israeli military has been drawing up contingency plans should Katyusha rockets be fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip.6
A recent lull in terror attacks suggests to some Israeli officials that the PLO is at last cracking down on Islamic militants.7 But it is a mistake for wishful-thinking Israelis to read too much into this respite, for it likely results more from the Israeli policy of "separation" and restriction of access for Palestinians than any real move by the PLO to suppress terrorists. To the limited extent that the decrease in attacks may been related to PLO policy, there is reason to wonder whether such good behavior will end once Palestinians gain control over the entire West Bank, that is, once they no longer have reason to tamp down anti-Israel violence.
At least three factors explain the PLO's toleration of terror against Israelis:
Hard to stop. To crack down on terror and call off the violence would involve a showdown with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other rejectionists. This would delegitimize Arafat among many Palestinians, given that they seem to support terror attacks. As data from the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus shows,8 46 percent of Palestinians support armed attacks against Israelis, while just 34 percent do not. Earlier polls by the Palestinian Public Opinion Institute near Bethlehem show even larger support for the violence.9
PLO complicity. Members of Arafat's PLO are involved in terror, sometimes under Hamas's banner. Indeed, the distinction between Hamas and the PLO is more functional than personal. The same individual is PLO when negotiating concessions from Israel or speaking with the media, but then metamorphoses into Hamas on the street. For example, when an Israeli reserve soldier was nearly lynched in Ramallah in December 1994, the PLO claimed its people had tried to rescue the soldier, and every media outfit reported the perpetrators as Hamas.10 However, thanks to the fortuitous presence of a film crew, Israeli intelligence subsequently identified all the lynchers except one as Fatah Hawks; and the supposedly Hamas members in the mob turned out to be Fatah rank and file.11
A means to pressure Israel. The Rabin government and much of the Israeli electorate respond to terror by making ever more generous concessions to Arafat, hoping this will persuade him to take action against the terrorists. It seeks to speed up implementation of the final settlement (possibly skipping the interim stage altogether); halt Israeli building activities (even in the greater Jerusalem area); and prevent Jews from constructing homes on West Bank land they already legally own; and has permitted PLO official activities--including diplomatic discussions--to take place in Jerusalem. But these concessions seem to bring little in return. When the PLO police opened fire on a Hamas mob in Gaza City in November 1994, many in Israel thought it was the beginning of the long-hoped-for showdown between the PLO "moderates" and the fundamentalist Muslims.12 However, no evidence suggests that the PLO police opened fire at the orders of the PLO leadership; rather, they reacted as would any police in the field to attack by a mob throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Israelis increasingly believe that the PLO coyly wants the terror to continue, perhaps as a lever of pressure upon Israel. The same PLO leadership that (unlike the camera crews) is incapable of locating Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders seems to have no difficulty at all in locating accused Palestinian "collaborators with Israel," arresting them and sometimes executing them. In his speech on January 1, 1995 (Fatah Day), Arafat proclaimed that "we [Palestinians] are all suicide-bombers."13
Whether undiminished terror results from the inability or the unwillingness of Arafat and the PLO to suppress it is the subject of much debate in Israel, with a growing move toward the "unwilling" school, even among staunch supporters of the DoP. In the end, it hardly matters whether the PLO is unable or unwilling. Whatever the reason, the violence goes on, and it continues to worsen.
That violence has shaken Israelis. Although public-opinion polls show a slim majority supports continuing the negotiations with Arafat and the PLO, they also show a sharp increase in skepticism regarding the PLO's intentions. Few Israelis now believe that Arafat and the PLO will stop the violence. To the contrary, opinion polls show that 73 percent of Israelis think Arafat will not take action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the same number think Arafat will not keep the commitments he made in the DoP.14 Further, 50 percent of Israelis think the Israel Defense Forces have grown weaker since the Oslo accord, while only 25 percent expressed confidence in the intentions of the PLO to keep its obligations.15 Indeed, hardly a day goes by without a demonstration by Arafat or his aides that they still adhere to the "plan of stages," by which the PLO would first negotiate a withdrawal of Israeli troops from some territories taken in 1967, then use those territories to launch an armed struggle to liberate all remaining lands and to destroy Israel.
THE POSITIVE VIEW
That the DoP has both succeeded and failed goes far to explain the continued divisions within Israel over the efficacy of the peace process and the performance of the Labor-Meretz government under Rabin. The Israeli public remains remarkably evenly divided, with approval/disapproval ratings of the negotiating process never significantly differing from a 50-50 split since September 1993.16 Let us look in greater detail at the arguments today, pro and con, for the DoP.
From a strategic point of view, Israeli relations with the Arab states are infinitely more important for Israel, and for stability in the Middle East, than Israel's relations with the Palestinians. The Palestinians alone cannot constitute a threat to Israel's existence, as the Arab states can. Cool logic suggests that if concessions to the Palestinians lead to real peace with the Arab states, then it is a matter of far less strategic importance how the Palestinians subsequently misbehave. Palestinian intentions may not be peaceful but without the Arab countries engaged in a state of war against Israel, Palestinian mischief could not go much beyond a campaign of bloodshed and atrocities. Strategic legitimization for Israel combined with escalated Palestinian terrorism might be considered a reasonably successful result of the DoP.
Difficult though it may be, Israelis might consider this an acceptable bargain. Within the context of Jewish history, a few hundred deaths per year from anti-Semitic acts are not much for a Jewish population of nearly five million. The people of Israel live, after all, with an annual traffic toll of about five hundred fatalities. Why not accept some carnage if it eliminates the existential threat to Israel from the Arab states? This appears to be the gamble upon which Rabin has bet both the state's existence and his own political future.
THE NEGATIVE VIEW
Three major problems, however, make this trade-off unlikely to work.
Not acceptable to Israelis. The Israeli electorate may not be willing to accept the prospect of suffering Palestinian attacks with a turned cheek. The State of Israel came into existence to eliminate conditions under which Jews would be led like sheep to the slaughter. Deep within the Israeli psyche and behind much of the mythos of modern Israel lies the image of the ghetto Jew -- having just escaped from pogroms -- seizing arms to fight off the enemy and restore his dignity. Passive acceptance of Palestinian terror implies abandonment of "never again" as the raison d'etre of the country. Further, Israelis undertook the Oslo deal because they understood they were entering a deal with the PLO whereby the Palestinians won sovereignty in exchange for calling off terrorism and violence.
Films of a Palestinian mob besieging the reservist in Ramallah or of terrorists holding helpless, handcuffed Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman as they threatened his execution shook the Israeli soul to the core and cannot fail to arouse the deepest and most bitter collective memories of the horrors filling Jewish history. For the Rabin government to argue that Israelis must simply learn to live with slaughter to achieve strategic goals is to deny everything at the heart of the Israeli national self-image.
It is also probably a good way to invite electoral defeat. Between now and Israel's next national election (at the latest November 1996, potentially at any time, should Rabin lose a vote of confidence), terrorist atrocities are likely to eat away slowly at Labor popularity. Even now, Rabin is running behind the leader of the opposition Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, in polls. By the time elections are held, terrorism may well prove to be the Wellington of Labor's Waterloo.
Arab states drawn in. It is not clear that swapping Palestinian terror for strategic legitimization will work. Can Arab states, even those formally at peace with Israel, sit passively while Israel and Palestinians trade blows in an escalating conflict? Would the Arab rulers remain neutral if Israel were to launch reprisal raids into the West Bank and Gaza? Would domestic pressures not force them to aid the Palestinian "victims" of Israeli "aggression"? The campaign of Palestinian terror could even draw Arab states with which Israel has signed formal peace treaties into military conflict with Israel. Indeed, such an outcome lies at the nucleus of the plan of stages, the Sudeten-like formula that -- as the PLO often emphasizes17 -- has not been abandoned.
There are signs that the DoP has radicalized Israeli Arabs, who naturally find it impossible to be less pro-Palestine than the Israeli Labor government. If terror originated among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, would not every Arab power bless and support their intifada?
Before September 13, Arab states refrained from condemning terrorist acts for which the PLO and other Palestinian terrorists openly took credit. Even after the Handshake, condemnation by Arabs of Hamas or Islamic Jihad atrocities has often been highly selective, hedged, reluctant, and sporadic, and often limited to "regret" that blood was shed. Arafat has been particularly reticent. Arab governments (including Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO, the Arab entities technically at peace with Israel) denounce each Israeli defensive action, such as reprisals against Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel is condemned for any act of self-defense or any use of force whatsoever in a defensive manner. The assassination of an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip in November 1994 was widely attributed to Israeli intelligence, and universal denunciation from the Arab world swiftly followed, even though Israel simply defended itself against enemies of peace (something one would expect Arab countries at peace with Israel to accept, just as Israel accepts Cairo's killing fundamentalist Muslim extremists).18
Anticipating this reaction, the Rabin government refrained from reprisals against Hizbullah villages in south Lebanon after August 1993, thereby permitting the latter to attack Israeli military targets in Lebanon. There has been no large-scale Israeli retaliation--indeed, almost no response at all--for the Hizbullah shellings in June 1995, for fear of disturbing the borders while trying to negotiate with Syria. This deal has led to a steady loss of Israeli life not only in south Lebanon but in Israel proper. (On April 1, 1995, a Hizbullah rocket resulted in the death of a teenage jogger in Nahariya, along with significant property damage.19) It has also aroused considerable opposition within Israel and will likely prove a severe electoral liability for Labor. In many ways, the DoP offers a more generalized version of this deal with Hizbullah.
Should the mischief of Palestinians lead to an escalating war of attrition between Israel and Palestine, the other Arab states and possibly Iran are likely to be drawn into the conflict. Such a sequence of events could cause the Middle East to experience a convulsion of armed conflict, which would involve the states of the region and possibly also external powers. It is impossible to know how such a conflict would end, and it is not impossible that weapons of mass destruction could be used.
Clearly, the Palestinians serve only as a fuse; without the Arab states and their enormous armies, there is no explosive that can be detonated. But with them, the Middle East could erupt into an explosion of unprecedented fury.
Worse to come. Once Israel is behind its 1967 borders and a Palestinian state20 has come into existence, the PLO no longer has any incentive to suppress the terror and violence. Quite the contrary, Arafat will use anti-Israel terrorism as a means to exert continuing pressure upon Israel and to demoralize Israelis.
At that time, any half-hearted and symbolic anti-terror efforts made today are likely to end, for the Palestinian Authority will have nothing to lose from violence. The PLO might even resume its historic seat at the head of the terror roundtable, and itself once again officially sponsor violence. Nor is there reason to think that a preoccupation with internal social and economic problems will prevent the Palestinian Authority from making mischief; how many Arab autocrats have let such problems get in the way of military adventurism and irredentist dreams?
It should not prove difficult for the PLO to explain and rationalize terror; it can claim parts of Israel's pre-1967 territories, such as the Galilee or the "Triangle" (an area east of Hadera with a local Arab majority). Indeed, the PLO may escalate the violence by arming and training Israeli Arabs themselves, as it has already done to a limited extent in the past. Terrorist violence, originating in the suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, may ultimately undermine every form of success emerging from the Oslo process, and could well escalate the Palestine-Israel conflict into a new all-out Arab-Israeli war. Israel will have to fight from within its pre-1967 borders; at their narrowest part (near Netanya), these leave the country with an area no wider than the length of the San Francisco Bay Bridge plus its on-ramps.
These three reasons explain why Israel's deal with the PLO is likely to prove ephemeral and not sustainable. Indeed, abundant signs suggest the DoP's mixed success will metamorphose into unqualified disaster; continuing Palestinian violence could develop into a strategic threat to Israel's very existence.
This conclusion has two practical implications for Israel. First, its leaders should halt negotiations with the PLO until the latter has demonstrated good faith in suppressing the terror over an extended period of time (perhaps years) and in eliminating--or, at least, defanging--the fundamentalist Muslim groups (much as Egypt and Jordan have done). Even after such good faith is convincingly demonstrated, Israel must maintain its military options within the Palestinian territories, including the option to reassert military control over the entire area at any time, should such action become necessary. A good litmus test might be Palestinian attitudes and behavior with respect to the Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. Secondly, Jerusalem should cease forgiving Palestinian statements. The PLO must talk peacefully, change its National Charter, and denounce violence in a clear and nonduplicitous manner. Israel should stop rationalizing Palestinian duplicity and stop feeding its own delusions. No "test" can be performed in life unless there is a clear criterion for measuring failure. If the PLO does not fulfill its obligations, the entire DoP should be revoked -- including possibly even a return to Gaza. This is not out of the question: six members of Israel's parliament from the Labor Party -- repeat, the Labor Party -- proposed just such a step in early April 1995, suggesting the IDF should reenter Gaza to track down terrorists. (Israel withdrew from Gaza because of the acute difficulties and few benefits of occupying that territory; but, after leaving, it was rewarded with a series of bomb blasts and mass murders in the heart of Israeli cities, leaving dozens of deaths. As things deteriorate, reoccupying Gaza might look less awful than the prospect of escalating terrorism.)
As for the U.S. government, it should back Israel in conditioning further concessions upon real changes in Palestinian attitudes and behavior. Washington must be patient, willing to let the process stall for as long as it takes, even indefinitely. Arabs and Israelis both have an expression that "impatience comes from the devil." Americans should keep this in mind and realize that peace will come to the Middle East only through outlasting the forces of strife and violence.
1 Also known as the Oslo accord or Gaza and Jericho First.
2 As-Safir, Dec. 23, 1994.
3 Al-Muslimun (Jeddah), Jan. 20, 1995.
4 Ha'aretz, Feb. 13, 1995.
5 Ha'aretz, Mar. 14, 1995.
6 Ha'aretz, Feb. 19, 1995.
7 The New York Times, July 10, 1995.
8 Lauren G. Ross and Nader Izzat Sa'id, "Palestinians: Yes to Negotiations, Yes to Violence," Middle East Quarterly, June 1995, pp. 15-23.
9 After the Beit Leid bombing in Jan. 1995, the Institute reported that 53% of Palestinians supported acts of terror against Jews, with 34% opposed and 13% not responding or unsure. The Jerusalem Post on Oct. 17 and Nov. 25, 1994, reports other polls showing strong support among Palestinians for terror.
10 The New York Times, Dec. 17, 1994.
11 The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 18 and 19, 1994.
12 The New York Times, Nov. 15, 1994; The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 3 and 4, 1994.
13 Ha'aretz, Jan. 23, 1995.
14 Yedi'ot Ahronot, Nov. 22, 1994.
15 Yedi'ot Ahronot, Mar. 26, 1995.
16 For instance, see The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 23 and Dec. 6, 1994. What variation does appear results in large part from the wording of survey questions.
17 Kuwaiti News Agency, Feb. 22, 1995.
18 The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 25, 1994.
19 Maariv, Apr. 2, 1995; Ha'aretz, Apr. 2, 1995.
20 While the official line is that no state will emerge from the DoP, few in Israel believe this, and some Labor Party backbenchers (for example, Hagai Merom) have already begun to speak openly of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. The Mashov faction of the Labor Party--the furthest left--recently came out for adopting the position that the party should favor Palestinian statehood (Ha'aretz, Mar. 12, 1995). Yossi Sarid and other leaders of Meretz have also publicly supported a Palestinian state.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy | Steven Plaut | September 1995 MEQ
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