Steven L. Spiegel is professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of, most recently, World Politics in a New Era (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995). This article derives from a paper presented at the June 1995 conference of the Israel Policy Forum.
Middle East peace is suddenly unpopular. With every suicide bombing, with every protest, with every diplomatic disappointment, voices are raised to question the value of the negotiating process. Instead of controlling terrorism, the peace effort seems to encourage it. Instead of promoting new relations between Israel and the Arab states, the headlines would have us believe that the process is moving backwards. Instead of prosperity, poverty seems to reign.
It is almost as if people were longing for the "good old days," when the Arab-Israeli conflict was crystal clear: all Arabs wanted to destroy Israel. Until Arab leaders were prepared to accept the Jewish state and recognize its right to exist, there could be no compromise because there was no one with whom Israelis could deal. The situation has changed radically now, with Israel developing a range of relations with at least some of its neighbors. And yet, many observers are reluctant to change their understanding of the Middle East. Afraid of sailing into the uncharted waters of a new era, they rarely ask about the risks of maintaining the old order.
Of all those trying to affect the course of events in the Middle East, only one party clearly understands the potential of peace: the suicide bombers and their sponsors. The Iranians, the radicals, the extremists have identified the truths we should now understand ourselves. They comprehend the nature of change in international relations and the meaning of peace for American, Israeli, and Arab interests. It is time we also focus on these realities.
THE CURRENT MOMENT
The exceptional opportunities of this moment have occurred due to five major reasons:
End of the cold war. The current peace process could not have been possible without the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. From the mid-1950s onward, the Soviet Union facilitated Arab resistance to Israel's existence and made it possible for Arab states to continually fight wars in the hope of one day conquering Israel. Arab states could operate with the confidence that despite repeated setbacks, they would each time be resupplied with weaponry and provided diplomatic clout by Moscow. This option ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and provided new pressure on Arab regimes for possible agreement with Israel.
The end of the cold war also made it possible for Israel to break out of its diplomatic isolation. The repeal of the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution in the U.N. General Assembly in 1991 is testimony to the end of that isolation. We often forget that when both China and India established diplomatic links with Jerusalem in late January 1992, almost 40 percent of the world's population newly had formal relations with Israel. The Arab effort to isolate and boycott Israel has failed.
The Kuwait war. The Kuwait war also created new realities in the area, leading to the Madrid Peace Conference held in October 1991. The war had important lessons for both Arabs and Israelis. For the former, it demonstrated the fantasy of Arab unity and the reality that an Arab state could threaten the very existence of another sovereign Arab government, hitherto regarded as impossible. Israelis were forced to confront their inability to counter Iraqi SCUDs falling on its territory, putting the potential danger from Palestinian terrorism and even Syrian confrontation in perspective. For both sides, the Kuwait war made clear the dangers of continued confrontation.
The Rabin government. In 1992, Israel's most hawkish government in history, led by Yitzhak Shamir, was replaced by a more pragmatic administration, led by Yitzhak Rabin. The Rabin government's diplomatic flexibility has enhanced existing opportunities.
Arab stability. Arab regimes have demonstrated great stability in recent years. Jordan's King Husayn came to power in 1952, Yasir Arafat took over the PLO in 1969, and Hafiz al-Asad became president of Syria in l971. These three aging veterans have the prestige and the experience to make peace, as King Husayn clearly demonstrated and as Arafat is attempting to show. As they pass from the scene, the situation in the Middle East may become far more complex and less promising. This means that the attempt by those who oppose the peace process to stall current efforts makes sense: if they can slow the momentum, conditions may change in their favor.
The emphasis on economics. A new world order among the great powers, replacing the cold war, is oriented toward economic means of competition and interchange. This process is epitomized by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union. Among newly industrializing countries of Asia, an emphasis on economic advancement is the lingua franca of the new world order. The dollar, the yen, and the mark have replaced the tank, the jet, and the aircraft carrier as the primary means of influence. Fluctuations in exchange rates justifiably attract more attention than changes in great-power arsenals.
These new trends have important implications for the Middle East. States mired in internal or international conflict find themselves further behind the new economic leaders of international affairs. Unless the Arabs and Israelis are able to adjust their economies away from a military orientation and find a niche in the new global economy, they risk being left behind, mere shadows in the sand along the vast ocean of great economic powers.
Here, too, the terrorists understand that time could work to their benefit. If peace agreements are not reached and the Middle East does not find its place in the more global economic order, mass frustration and impatience will grow, making an Arab-Israeli peace less likely.
On both the Arab and Israeli sides, considerable opposition exists to the peace process now under way. On the Arab side, the terrorists believe their violence can force Israel to weaken its efforts in favor of accommodation with the Arabs, thereby worsening the condition of the local Palestinian Arabs and intensifying division among Arab states. The result would be harsher policies by both sides and a return to the conflicts of earlier days.
Some disillusioned Israelis and their supporters see the terrorist attacks as signs that negotiations cannot work and that Israel must continue to struggle against its Arab adversaries. These pessimists believe that after a period of reconsolidation, the Arabs and Israelis may be able to try again to make peace under improved conditions.
But these skeptics fail to appreciate the present historic moment, which offers a rare opening for diplomatic breakthroughs. Without progress, the terrorists are correct that five to ten years hence, the Palestinians are likely to be led by more extremist and violent factions. The current Arab leadership may well pass from the scene succeeded by those without the experience or prestige to make peace. By then, Israel will be less able to compete in the international economic arena and provide its citizens with security and tranquility. The pessimists are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy. By waiting until a more propitious distant moment to pursue the peace process, they instead will find themselves in an ever increasing vortex of violence, despair, and extremism.
There are also those Jews who unwittingly welcome the terrorist vision. Their aims mirror those of Arab extremists. They believe that a protracted conflict between Arabs and Israelis will be won by Israel. The Palestinians, in their frustration and poverty, will either leave the area or submit to indefinite Israeli rule. Increased settlements on the West Bank will create a situation in which the Palestinians have no choice. The Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty will become a model accepted by others, especially Syria, which will agree to an Israeli retention of the Golan Heights.
But this vision fails to explain a number of considerations, among them: how Israel can indefinitely challenge the international community, in particular the United States, and avoid returning to its previous isolation; how Israel can adjust to the new international economic environment if its struggles continue and it is alienated from key potential trade partners in Asia, Europe, and North America; how Israel can deal with the Iraqi and Iranian threats while isolated and absorbed in a continuing conflict with its immediate neighbors; and how Jordan and Egypt will continue their peace agreements with Israel under a protracted Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
A REALISTIC PLAN
Instead, Arabs and Israelis should seek a vision that includes new regional structures, and that enters the Middle East into the global economy. This vision is based on a region in which Israel is at peace with the major states in the area. The reconciliation will not be perfect. Disagreements will remain, disputes will arise, and the nature of peace will as often be cold as hot. The important point, however, is that force or the threat of force will not be seen as an appropriate instrument for the settlement of disputes. Israel will be an accepted member of the region, conducting diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with a large number of states in the region--a large number, but probably not all. For the indefinite future, several states in the region will remain bitter enemies with Israel, which may therefore find itself in a shifting series of alliances.
This type of region has been emerging for several years. Gradually since the 1970s, Israel has gained a wider acceptance, to the point that it now has peace treaties with two of its four neighbors. The major task confronting the Jewish state now is to create conditions so that this acceptance will be solidified. This receptivity will either widen and deepen or it will evaporate; current conditions cannot be frozen.
For this vision to move forward requires progress in Israeli talks with the Palestinians (or the Syrians). Now that the DoP has been reached, and followed by much delay and acrimony, progress is slow. What is now needed is some combination of Palestinian elections, Israeli redeployment, and continued negotiations, all of which would demonstrate that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government can transcend the suicide bombers.
This is a critical point. Further Palestinian-Israeli agreements demonstrate that the terrorists can be defeated, which spurs them on to new violence. Each time the two sides come close to a further agreement, a horrible terrorist incident occurs, killing tens of Israelis and yielding new delays. These delays--however understandable--represent a victory for Arab extremists. They disillusion individual Israelis and their supporters abroad, inhibit the flexibility of the Rabin government, and place greater pressure on the PA, whose authority and effectiveness is further challenged with each additional successful attack. Their objectives achieved, the terrorists are encouraged to try again.
Cold rationality dictates moving ahead with the peace process as a means of thwarting its opponents. But politics is not always rational, and no democracy can ignore the pained cries of its citizens. Since September 1993, about two hundred Israelis have died as a consequence of terrorist attacks. Many incidents have been particularly dreadful, from bus-bombings in the heart of Tel Aviv to the excruciating crisis of Nachshon Waxman, a young soldier taken hostage who pleaded unsuccessfully for his life in videotaped telecasts. Given Israel's small size, its history of holocaust and warfare, and the horrendous nature of each act, as the terrorists know only too well, no Israeli leader can ignore these operations.
Moreover, statistics appear to reinforce the quick conclusion that the peace process has contributed to terrorism. The rate of Israeli deaths from terrorism per month rose from September 1993 to March 1995 by comparison with the previous period, as tables 1 and 2 demonstrate.
Yet, the actual record is far more complex. The agreement to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho was signed on May 4, 1994. In the twelve months beforehand, there were 67 Israeli deaths by terrorist attacks; in the following twelve months, there were 83, but the number of fatal attacks declined from 44 to 26. Reckoning differently, 67 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in the eighteen months before the September 1993 accord; 123 afterward. The number of attacks, however, was essentially unchanged (52 before the accord; 55 afterward). The particular rise in fatalities was caused by the use of the suicide-bombing technique. To blame the peace process for the rise in casualties, one has to claim that the terrorists otherwise would not have had any incentive to attack Israel (a dubious proposition) and that Israel itself could have prevented the suicide bombings, which might or might not be true but which is not substantiated by the historical pattern.
The suicide bombings are the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks, which have been endemic to the Arab-Israeli conflict since its inception. Throughout this century, any changes in Arab-Israeli conditions, any progress in Arab-Israeli accommodation, any diplomatic movement was always accompanied by attacks. In the early 1970s, for example, as in response to the convulsions caused by the Six-Day War, Palestinian terrorists perpetrated airline hijackings and bombing attacks on innocent civilians, such as Olympic athletes in Munich and schoolchildren in Ma'alot. In an interminable pattern, each time the Israeli security services found ways to thwart the latest attacks, they were confronted by new methods of assaulting Israelis. This pattern accelerated with Israel's intervention in Lebanon in 1982, in which other groups, such as Shi'is and fundamentalists, experimented with new techniques and mechanisms for killing Jews. After the inception of the intifada in late l987, stabbing attacks killed innocent civilians. In the most recent phase, which began in September 1993, the number of incidents declined even as the lethal impact of each one increased.
Our perceptions sometimes fool us into thinking conditions are better or worse than they actually are, as table 3 shows. The three years after the Six-Day War were a heady period filled with confidence and a sense of security. Yet, roughly 1,500 Israelis died (including those who fought in the War of Attrition against Egypt). Similarly, from mid-1970 to mid-1973, most Israelis felt deceptively secure; still, almost 700 died. The suicide bombings have created an aura of fear and peril lethal to positive attitudes toward peace and conducive to impediments in peace efforts. They reflect not the historical reality of a new situation but the exacerbation of a continuing problem that has existed for decades and cannot be resolved with a handshake or a Declaration of Principles. Indeed, by mid-1995, terrorist attacks and fatalities had declined dramatically. According to Israel's General Security Services, attacks declined from 796 in February-March 1994 to 120 during the same period in 1995; and from 302 in May 1994 to just 49 in May 1995.1 But, alas, as continuing lethal incidents suggest and history teaches us (table 4), reduced casualties are not likely to last indefinitely.
Because of the suicide bombings, it is easy to conclude that peace causes terrorism, but to make this judgment is to accept the notion that peace between Arabs and Israelis will never occur, for there is likely to be a new spate of terrorist attacks each time a new agreement is reached. Certainly, any Israeli government must take every step possible to thwart terrorist violence, including intensified intelligence and military operations, pressure on the PA to take stronger steps, and separation measures between the two populations. Israel needs to support the enhancement of economic opportunities in the West Bank and Gaza so that terrorism will lack fertile ground in which to grow.
At the same time, Israel and its supporters must remember that to succumb to terrorist pressure is to relinquish the possibility of a Middle East without terrorism. Further, the failure of the peace process would entail security costs for Israel. Staying the course of negotiations holds out the prospect of a settlement with Syria or the Palestinians or both, releasing resources to deal with the dawning threat of mass destruction and long-range weaponry from Iran, Iraq, Libya, or even a fundamentalist Algeria. The Israel Defense Forces would devote itself more centrally to the emerging dangers that are potentially far more severe than problems along Israel's frontier.
A settlement brings other benefits too. Israel's place in diplomatic and economic councils worldwide would be enhanced. The country would be better able to deal with a possible intensified influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israel's economy would prosper in a condition of regional settlement even if complex economic interchange with neighbors did not occur. Israel's hi-tech economy would lead to increased trade with Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. The personal security of individual Israelis would surely be enhanced as well. The country's borders would contract, but its economy, political standing, attractiveness, and stature would expand.
The Arabs would also gain from a settlement. While regional common markets and even free-trade areas between Israel and its Arab neighbors may be unrealistic, cultural, economic, and political interchanges are certainly feasible. Arabs and Israelis are already collaborating against common adversaries (fundamentalists, Marxists), and would do so in an even more effective and public way. The peace process provides an opportunity to enhance the flagging economies of the participating countries, with important implications for domestic stability. A peace settlement facilitates these governments' adjustment to a world in which access to information is constantly expanding. A calmer regional environment thus provides these states with a far better chance of competing in the new post-cold war marketplace. Coordinated regional arrangements and the diminished possibility of war, reduced Arab isolation in the international arena, and greater Arab status in world councils would all follow on the construction of a new set of relations in a Middle East that included Israel. Individual governments would be strengthened by a reduced need for growing defense expenditures and a dampened arms race. Those regimes confronting an extremist Islamic threat would undoubtedly be strengthened by increasingly devoting resources to domestic needs.
The Middle East is now at a crossroads, and the United States can make a difference to help the parties take advantage of a unique constellation of historical circumstances. This imposes a political decision on Americans: do they crave the old order, the safety of familiar conflict and turmoil, or can they summon the courage to move into new, uncharted, but exhilarating waters filled with opportunity and promise? Courage can help make a new era happen. The Arab-Israeli peace process does not offer a panacea. But it is worth fighting for, worth resisting the temptation of familiar but lethal conflict, worth helping to create, for American interests and for those of the peoples of the Middle East. A breakthrough with Israel can provide a context in which pro-American regimes can adapt, prosper, continue to exist, move eventually toward increased democracy, and create more effective security both internally and between neighbors.
1 The Jerusalem Post, June 14, 1995.