Yigal Carmon, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Ministers Shamir, Rabin, and Netanyahu, recently told a Middle East Forum audience that negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization mark "the most revolutionary change in the history of the State of Israel." At the same time, major problems lie at the heart of that diplomacy, and Mr. Carmon explained why a positive outcome to the peace process may not occur.
The problem. The root problem in PLO/Israel relations is simple: the PLO has not changed its fundamental mission since it entered peace talks with Israel. Then and now it exists to solve the problems caused by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War. The latter are solvable: several areas of the territories captured by Israel in 1967 already are under control of the Palestinian Authority. Problems caused in the wake of 1948, however, cannot be solved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.
His earlier writings to the contrary -- about the need to stand tall against terrorism -- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's actions "teach the PLO that pressure pays, that violence works." Although Netanyahu was elected to enforce greater PLO compliance with its promises, the "ongoing unilateral concessions" continue.
What limit to Israeli concessions? Not until the Israeli populace reaches what Carmon calls its "consensual red line" will the government stop making concessions to the PLO. Where is that red line?
Palestinian statehood is now broadly acceptable to Israelis, for both of their major parties envision some type of Palestinian state, be it the "state minus" formulation of Labor or the "autonomy plus" plan of the Likud.
Changes to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel need not halt the peace process. Netanyahu has already begun to explore options in his public addresses, such as making free access to the holy places an "official" obligation, suggesting changes to the status quo.
The Palestinian demand for a right of return to pre-1967 Israel appears to be the only consensual red line remaining, for Israelis understand that their state could not survive the arrival of two million Palestinians; this would destroy the Jewish character of the state. Israel will be deemed "intransigent" and "extreme" for denying this "right" to the Palestinians. "It is a heart-breaking, moral dilemma," but Carmon argues there is no room for Israel to compromise on this issue. The PLO cannot abandon this goal, however, because it represents the interests of all Palestinians, including those who left (and their descendants) in 1948-49; an impasse is thus in the cards.
When this happens, Carmon argued that Yasir Arafat will resort to violence. As he has stated in public, "all options are open." From this perspective, the outbreak of violence in September 1996 foreshadowed what will follow. "Inevitably, we will reach an explosion;" at that moment, Israel will have to deal with thousands of armed Palestinians positioned near to its own heavily populated areas. Carmon estimates that the Palestinian Authority already has between fifty and a hundred thousand soldiers ("policemen") at its disposal.
This presents a far more major challenge to Israel than is commonly realized for, as Carmon explained, "Israel cannot use its formidable might against it." Tanks and jets do not help. For Israel, an assault against this force would mean that "we either commit terrible bloodshed or we send our children into house-to-house fighting." The Israelis can expect a tough time battling the Palestinian army.
The solution. While admitting that he would prefer a different partner in peace negotiations, Carmon acknowledged that the time for such hopes had past; there is no alternative to the PLO now. The current issue is to find an effective approach in negotiations with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.
Carmon believes that the true nature of Arafat's character is not that of a moderate but of a pragmatist -- "he doesn't bang his head against the wall" when caught in a bind. His positions change with variations in his power and capabilities. By playing to Arafat's nature and requiring true compliance on current agreements, Israel can strike a deal that may postpone and perhaps eliminate future problems.
Summary prepared by Seth Lasser, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and an intern at the Middle East Forum.