What was the spur for this change? Surprisingly perhaps, it had much to do not with indigenous Palestinian developments but with ideas and methods coming out of the Soviet Union. Ironically, while these ideas did not save the Soviet Union from collapse as intended, they did advance the Palestinian cause.
The last Soviet rulers realized that they were losing ground vis-à-vis the West in every sphere, including the military one, throughout the Brezhnev years and even more so after his death in 1982. The American willingness to actively support anticommunist fighters from Central America to Afghanistan, plus the evident determination to outspend, out-research, and ultimately out-deploy the Soviet Union militarily, convinced the Soviets that the correlation of forces they famously found so persuasive was tilting decidedly against them. They saw they could no longer compete on a material level with the West. They understood that, instead of seeking confrontations with the West on a multitude of fronts, they had to seek tension-reducing accommodations wherever possible. The adventurism (movements of national liberation, proxy wars, super-power brinkmanship) that had characterized Soviet foreign policy would have to give way to a more diplomatic approach.
Thus was born perestroika, or "restructuring"; Mikhail Gorbachev developed this concept to save the revolution from its failures. His idea was to adapt Soviet foreign policy to meet the imperatives of the country's domestic economic reform. By gaining prestige and credit for good behavior, the Soviet leadership expected its domestic reforms to receive foreign support, including credits, notably from West Germany and the United States. The more relaxed international environment would allow the Soviets to concentrate on domestic reforms. Georgy Arbatov, the director of the Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, commented on this connection in a 1989 book of interviews with Soviet supporters of perestroika:
there still are people here who cling to old ideas about the priority of promoting revolutions abroad-people who still think we can work miracles when foreign Marxists ask us for help. But it doesn't work. The best way to influence other countries is by reforming our own system. Perestroika involves a new way of thinking about foreign policy which begins with seeing realities as they are, not as we want them to be.1Alexander Yakovlev, a close advisor to Gorbachev, noted in the same book, "Perestroika is the continuation of the revolution."2 Yakovlev's statement is a useful reminder that when the Soviets urged their clients and allies to seek "peace" in the Middle East, this did not mean they were renouncing their ultimate goal of establishing a peace there that gave them political and economic parity with the United States.
It was in this period, too, that the Soviet leadership relaxed the ever-present censorship and manipulation of history which was a characteristic of totalitarian rule. For them, glasnost, usually translated as "transparency" or "openness," was part of perestroika. Without one, there could not be the other. In other words, the followers of "scientific socialism" finally acknowledged that facts matter, that reevaluating one's past (on the basis of what really happened) was necessary in order to correct one's mistakes. When this was done, progress toward the traditional goal of a radiant future could resume. This was a theoretically ponderous way of admitting that foreign policy must take into account contemporary realities.
Middle East Diplomacy
By 1988, the Soviet Union's goals in the Middle East had undergone their second great strategic shift since World War II. From the war until the Suez crisis of 1956, the Soviets were almost single-mindedly concerned with evicting British imperialism from the Middle East. One practical consequence of this focus was to limit Soviet interest in "anti-Zionist" movements for, as a "bourgeois-national" movement, Zionism in Soviet eyes was necessarily pitted against British imperialism, making it worthy of some support. After Suez, the Soviets reversed policies and viewed the world as rigidly divided in two camps, their own and that of the United States. In this light, they came to see the State of Israel as nothing but an agent of American "imperialism." As anything that weakened the imperialist camp was to be supported, Soviet policy became avowedly anti-Israel in nature.
By the time Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviets could congratulate themselves on their policy in the Middle East - but only up to a point. They undoubtedly had created an endless, and hugely expensive, problem for "imperialists" in the Middle East. But sustaining a permanent military threat to Israel and helping to destabilize Western access to Middle East oil was even more expensive, relatively speaking, to the Soviets than to the West. As elsewhere - in Africa, Central America, and Europe - the Soviets in the mid-1980s needed a break from the policies of confrontation that had marked the cold war years.
To convince the United States that "new thinking" about the Middle East really was taking place in Moscow, the Soviet leadership set its sights, among other goals, on two relating to Israel: one consisted of reforming the PLO's open intention of destroying Israel and the other of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel. These steps were seen as opening the door to an American acceptance of the Soviet Union as a legitimate partner in Middle East diplomacy. In this way, the decades-old Soviet goal of an international peace conference might be realized, leading to the Soviet Union's deeper economic and strategic involvement in the region.
A Hebrew-language commentary on Moscow Radio's "Peace and Progress" explained this approach: "As for our relations with Arab countries in the new era, we give explicit priority to economic ties with them … The fact that both [the Soviet Union and the Arab world] are the world's most important oil exporters provides another opportunity for cooperation."3 A strategy of economic cooperation with the Arab states, combined with a more forthcoming attitude toward the West, was intended to demonstrate the indispensability of the Soviet Union in the international system. Developing better relations with Israel, with which formal relations had been broken following the 1967 war, was a strategy aimed squarely at the United States, which made enhanced trade relations dependent on improvements in the Soviet human rights record. In practice, as the Jackson-Vanik amendment made clear, this meant lifting restrictions on Jewish emigration, which Gorbachev proceeded to do.
Gorbachev also got to work on changing the PLO stance toward Israel. Diplomatic steps toward this end began on April 11, 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev received Yasir Arafat in Moscow. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to review Soviet-PLO relations, but Gorbachev's real aim quickly emerged: he wanted the PLO to recognize Israel. He asked the terrorist organization for whom "driving the Jews into the sea" had been a refrain for over twenty years to recognize Israel, using United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 as a basis for this fundamental strategic reversal. Gorbachev told Arafat that recognition of the state of Israel was the "necessary element for the establishment of peace and good neighborliness in the region."4
The news of Gorbachev's policy change was purposely leaked and was picked up widely by the Western media. The aim was to put pressure on the PLO, and Israel too for that matter. Past masters in the tactic of "peace offensives," the Soviets knew how to put opponents in the awkward situation of having to defend their security interests against "peace." Arafat, wanting to avoid comment on the initiative, nevertheless had to acknowledge the request Gorbachev had put to him.
Following this meeting, the Soviets moved quickly to add to the pressure on the PLO. On June 8, 1988, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze met with Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. While discussing a wide range of issues, they focused on the visit of an Israeli consular team to Moscow whose primary mission would be to facilitate emigration.5 That team arrived in Moscow at the end of July. At about the same time, Vladimir Terrasov, deputy head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Middle East department, told Nimrod Novick, an advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres, that the Soviet Union was playing a "significant role" in developments within the PLO concerning a declaration of Palestinian statehood. The Soviets wanted the Israelis to know they could be helpful in providing early warnings of important developments, which at the same time suggested they had some control over them, control that might be exercised to Israel's benefit.6
The Soviet Diplomatic Offensive
Three months later in Algiers, on November 15, 1988, at a meeting of the Nineteenth Extraordinary Session of the Palestinian National Council (the unelected Palestinian "parliament" in exile), Arafat proclaimed Palestinian independence. While the Soviets recognized this make-believe state, Igor Kudrin of Moscow Television's "The World Today," reminded viewers, "Of course, comrades, you and I realize that the act of proclaiming the new state is of a symbolic nature, as yet."7
After the Algiers meeting Gorbachev's men very publicly began to lavish praise upon the PLO for its "brave" moves. In this spirit, one A. Kiselev wrote in the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvedzda8 : "There is no doubt that the constructive decisions of the recent PNC session show that the Palestinian leadership has grasped the principles of the new political thinking and is acting in accordance with them." The Soviet diplomatic offensive continued in the following weeks, urging the PLO and Israel to "take advantage of the unique chance" to advance the peace process.9
Comparing PLO actions to "new thinking" (their term to describe perestroika in international relations), the Soviets transferred their own "new" policies of reassessment and historical review to the PLO. They described in glowing terms how the PLO's decisions and actions were "the result of the manifestation of realism in policy, of new thinking of the PLO leadership." Soviet commentators approvingly noted how Moscow insisted
that all the parties involved in the Middle East conflict should take into consideration the realities of the situation in the region, should really ensure freedom of choice, agree on guarantees for mutual security, respect view and stands of other, be tolerant and learn to live together in peace and mutual understanding.10"Tel Aviv," a commentator concluded, "cannot afford to disregard the growth of the prestige of the PLO in the world."11
As the rounds of self-praise continued, it became obvious the Soviets were doing more than offering some free advice on the Middle East. They were exporting Gorbachev's principles to the PLO, their client and ally. They made no effort to conceal their strategy of presenting a new, friendlier face to the West. "We advise our friends," Genrikh A. Borovik, president of the Soviet Peace Committee and long-time Soviet commentator suggested, "this does not mean they have to listen to us."12 But they did.
Israel's government could afford to disregard the PLO's new message and its supposed global prestige -until the Bush administration showed interest in the changed PLO approach as a way to further its own goals in the Middle East. And this is precisely what happened. The policy forbidding U.S. officials to have formal contacts with the PLO (because of the PLO's continued refusal to recognize Israel) was abandoned after the Algiers declaration, when the PLO seemed to be evolving toward recognition of Israel. Just a month later, Washington agreed to initiate official contacts with the PLO. With this change, Gorbachev was well on his way toward achieving his goal of an international conference on the Palestinian question and the return of Soviet diplomacy in the Middle East, through the front door.
The PLO as Star Pupil
Despite the PLO's initial misgivings, Gorbachev's policy represented a public-relations coup for the PLO, allowing it to change its status as a terrorist organization to that of an embryonic state. Neither the Soviets nor the PLO hid the opportunistic nature of the policy. In a London Arabic paper, Yasir `Abd Rabbuh, a close Arafat aide, exulted that "the tactical flexibility in the Palestinian stand, which is based on the Palestine National Council resolution in Algiers, is aimed at winning over world public opinion, including the American one, and at confusing and isolating the enemy."13 Just as Arbatov explained about the Soviets regarding the United States, the PLO would do the same, saying that it would deprive Israel of an enemy.14 This was the key step for the PLO to gain the upper hand in the global fight with Israel for public opinion.
The deeply divided PLO factions were able to overcome their doctrinal differences and historical rivalries to present an appreciative attitude toward Moscow's initiative. Even the dissident Muhammad `Abbas of the Palestinian National Front, mastermind of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, aligned his statements with the "new thinking." He announced proudly in 1989 "that many of the PLO's achievements in the international arena recently have been determined to a considerable extent by the results of the meeting between Y. Arafat and M. S. Gorbachev a year ago."15
He no doubt meant it. In the space of just three years, 1988-91, the PLO had turned the diplomatic tables on Israel. Much to Israel's dismay, the PLO was now widely seen as a factor with which Israel had to come to terms. Soviet and Arab commentators as well as diplomats reinforced the notion that Israel was falling behind in the propaganda race. The PLO, a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman concluded, had "imparted a powerful impulse to the peace efforts, upgraded contacts between the concerned parties, and resulted in the beginning of an official dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization."16 In 1990, Soviet commentators were still boasting of the accomplishments of the Palestinians and the spread of their ideals, even (ironically) comparing them to the popular uprisings then underway against communist rule in Eastern Europe. The Palestinian struggle, Moscow's International Service announced in Arabic,
has attracted great respect from all strugglers and honest men in the world. It has left its clear effect on all moods of behavior. It is not accidental that the peoples in East Europe, the GDR [East Germany], Czechoslovakia, and Romania went on to the streets repeating the word intifada. That means that this Palestinian uprising and the movements of the masses in East Europe are one for democracy and freedom.17As the PLO's initiatives and prestige spread, so did its ability to put the lessons of the "new thinking" to greater use against Israel. It twisted words to the point of absurdity - but to great effect. Terms such as peace, mutual respect, and security, once anathema to the PLO, became commonplace. The famous "three noes" pronounced by the Arab leaders in Khartoum in late 1967 somehow got turned around to describe Israel's refusal to negotiate. In a Pravda interview, for example, Yasir Arafat ascribed no less than five "noes" to Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (whom he called "Mr. No"):
He says "no" to the PLO, "no" to the Palestinian independent state, "no" to self-determination, "no" to an international conference, and "no" to international participation and monitoring.18The PLO in fact became the prize pupil of Gorbachev's "new thinking." When the Iranian leader `Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani urged the indiscriminate murder of Westerners in retaliation for Palestinian deaths incurred during the intifada, Arafat rejected this call, as did Moscow. The latter explained:
Who can guarantee that among the Palestinians there will not be a few hotheads who are unaware of politics and who will take Tehran's remarks seriously? Thus, a serious blow will be inflicted on the policy that the PLO has now adopted and that is slowly and patiently trying to build up peace in the Near East.19Moscow also pointed out that many in the West would be "overjoyed to find a pretext on which to condemn the PLO of terrorism to stop the Palestinians' peaceful offensive."20
But, of course, words were not enough. Moscow sought concrete results in the Middle East, which involved a trade-off for Israel: diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, leading immediately to open emigration, on the positive side, negotiations with the PLO, with all that implied, on the negative side. This phase of Gorbachev's gambit in the Middle East began in earnest early in 1989.
Diplomatic Relations with Israel
On February 23, 1989, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens met with Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's foreign minister. They agreed to upgrade Soviet-Israeli relations to consular status, allowing them to focus on the chief issue between the two states-emigration. Soon after this upgrade in relations, articles began to appear in the Soviet press advocating the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. Even Soviet officials urged the resumption of ties. Karen Brutents, a Central Committee official responsible for Middle Eastern affairs, commented:
We consider having diplomatic relations with Israel as normal, beneficial, and necessary. We want to renew diplomatic relations, but you must prove that you desire this as well. This cannot be done without solving the Middle East conflict once and for all. Today, the chances of achieving a solution are better than they have ever been.21In a revealing comment on the logic of the new diplomacy, Radomir Bagdanov of the Soviet Committee for the Defense of Peace observed,
we have supported only one side while our foreign policy rival, the United States, has managed to maintain relations with almost all parties to the conflict, which incidentally, has been of inestimable benefit to the United States' ally in the Near East--Israel.22By establishing relations with both Israel and the PLO, Moscow sought to achieve the diplomatic advantage for which it envied Washington. The Soviets established consular relations with Israel (on March 14, 1989), less than three weeks after they upgraded the PLO mission in Moscow to the level of an embassy.
Meanwhile, Israel benefited from its side of the bargain. In September 1989, 3,500 Jews left the Soviet Union. Two months later, that number had nearly quadrupled. In December 1990, the number jumped to 35,000. By the end of 1991, over 325,000 Soviet Jews had emigrated to Israel.23 For Israeli leaders, perestroika brought important benefits, giving Israel a major demographic shot in the arm even as it reasserted its role as a refuge for Jews.
From the Arab point of view, however, perestroika appeared to be a disaster, and the PLO was blamed for going along with a massive strengthening of Israel. "Just as we have predicted," proclaimed a clandestine Palestinian radio station, "the Soviet Jews are still streaming in, while their excellencies of the PLO look on."24 Neither was the PLO, of course, any too pleased about the increase in Jewish emigration to Israel, and it let the Soviets know this. Its ambassador to the Soviet Union, Nabil 'Amr, said publicly that "several 'clouds' have appeared in Soviet-Arab relations. Both sides must find ways to overcome these disagreements."25 Other Palestinian leaders were more explicit in condemning what they saw as a failure for their side. Faysal al-Husayni, a prominent Palestinian, noted acerbically:
I personally believe that the Soviet Union is attempting to find a cure for its situation created by the perestroika policy through unsuccessful medicines which it believes are successful. However, regrettably, these medicines also have harmful side effects. We the Palestinians have felt the harmful side effects through the issues of emigration and open doors to travel without any restrictions.Husayni, however, declined to hint at any U.S.-Soviet collusion:
I also do not believe that the Soviet Union is a partner in an international deal-whose substance is Jewish emigration-without denying that other powers have exploited and benefited from this reality against the interests of the Palestinians and the Soviet Union.26Finishing the Job, 1990-93
Palestinian distrust of Gorbachev set in, reinforced by the failure of his diplomatic efforts to avoid the allied attack on Iraq during the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91. Although Gorbachev had brought the PLO to new heights of international acceptance, his own power was evaporating as he lost control over his reforms and his country. The PLO felt abandoned and lost faith in "new thinking." Arafat reverted to his old ways and wholeheartedly supported Iraq, only to find himself on the losing side in the war.
Palestinians were hardly alone in their distrust of Gorbachev. In August 1991, hard-liners in the Soviet Union took advantage of Gorbachev's absence from Moscow to launch a coup, attempting to remove him from power and to reinstate the Communist party leadership that they accused him of decimating. The PLO stumbled again. "Perestroika has fallen in the U.S.S.R.," exulted the Voice of Palestine, an official PLO radio. "Perestroika was an anomaly and the military leaders who seized power in the U.S.S.R. understood the lessons of the Gulf war."27 In throwing its support to the hard-liners in Moscow, the PLO again showed its true colors, confirming the doubts of its detractors that "new thinking" for the PLO was strictly a matter of expediency. Ironically, it was also denying the legitimacy of the policy from which it would most benefit.
Now only the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the near-defunct Soviet Union and Israel blocked Soviet participation in the international conference in Madrid; accordingly, on October 24, 1991, the Soviets announced the reopening of an Israeli Embassy in Moscow and just six days later, the Madrid conference began, co-hosted by the Soviet Union and the U.S. The Soviet Union now enjoyed the prestige it had so long sought in the Middle East. The pleasure was of short duration.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev had fallen, replaced by the Russia of former president Boris Yeltsin. Though he supported the PLO, Yeltsin gave it much less support than Gorbachev. More broadly, he paid much less attention to foreign policy in general, having a full plate trying to guide Russia through the birth pangs of democracy. The Palestinians had to pursue "new thinking" on their own. Though hardly enthusiastic, they found it had acquired a momentum of its own.
While there were a number of motivations for Israel to seek a deal with the PLO, the "new thinking" provided those in Israel and the U.S. in favor of this approach with crucial arguments to give the PLO a chance to prove itself. Once the staunch opposition to talks with the PLO was overcome, the momentum was difficult to stop. On September 13, 1993, Yasir Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin signed a Declaration of Principles (also known as the Oslo agreement). In May 1994, the PLO achieved a presence on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, exercising many of the functions of self-government. Moreover, the PLO had driven a wedge between those Israelis who mistrusted the PLO and those more inclined to work with it. Thus did Soviet-inspired "new thinking" achieve far more for the PLO than bullets and bombs had ever done.
Whatever else might be said about the PLO, fondness for peace and good neighborliness were not qualities usually associated with it during most of its initial three decades. Founded in 1964, it was a confederation of Palestinian Arab political groups whose only common traits were implacable hatred of Israel and dependency on patrons in the Soviet bloc and among Arab states. The PLO represented a wide swathe of Arab political opinion, which is not really surprising, for its factions were the creatures of their patrons far more than the voices of their putative constituents. Its umbrella sheltered both Christian pan-Arabists and conservative Muslim clans, as well as agents of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, Communists and others. By virtue of its composition, the PLO could never have achieved its goals with the tactics of "armed struggle." Disunity made it difficult to coordinate a cohesive strategy.
Taking advantage of the PLO's inherent weaknesses, the Soviet Union used its client to further its own goals. Having failed to "liberate" an inch of territory from Israel, the PLO really had no choice but to agree to be used by Gorbachev's "new thinkers." Everything else had failed. Achieving little with force, kind words were a useful alternative and probably all the PLO had left to use in its struggle against Israel. It was the last gift the Soviet Union gave the PLO, and the most valuable one.
Perestroika aimed at giving something to Israel that it badly wanted (unhindered emigration of Soviet Jews) in return for better relations with the United States and a part in the Middle East's Great Game. The PLO was to recognize Israel and in return gain respectability (and perhaps a state). Gorbachev stuck to his proffered deal better than Arafat; yet the latter emerged intact and has gained great rewards for the deal. Almost in spite of itself, the PLO got what the new thinking was supposed to win the Soviet Union: an apparently irreversible role in American strategic calculations.
For the PLO, perestroika was a life-saving operation, in spite of itself. It ended the long struggle for the group to reach Gaza and the West Bank. The PLO learned that kind words are better than bullets, especially for a group that represented a negligible military threat, but a constant terrorist one. Although wary of perestroika, the PLO adopted the Leninist dictum of "one step backward, two steps forward." It worked: the PLO advanced to its long-sought goal of parity with Israel and, even though the method was alien to its nature, it is now within reach of statehood.
Gregg Rickman, previously legislative director for Alfonse D'Amato (Republican of New York), is author of Swiss Banks and Jewish Souls (Transaction, 1999).
1 Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina van den Heuvel, Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), p. 315.
2 Cohen and van den Heuvel, Voices of Glasnost, p. 39.
3 "Peace and Progress," Moscow Radio, Nov. 28, 1989.
4 Cited by Mark Train, "U.S. Unmoved by Soviets' PLO Bid," The Guardian, Apr. 12, 1988.
5 The New York Times, June 10, 1988.
6 The Guardian, Aug. 3, 1988.
7 Moscow Television Service, Nov. 15, 1988.
8 Krasnaya Zvedzda (Moscow), Nov. 29, 1988.
9 TASS International Service (Moscow), Dec. 14, 1988.
10 TASS, Jan. 10, 1989.
11 TASS, Jan. 10, 1989.
12 Interview with Genrikh A. Borovik, Miami, Fla., May 27, 1990.
13 Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), Oct. 13, 1989.
14 Address by Georgy Arbatov, "Miami-Moscow Dialogue," Miami, Fla., May 27, 1990.
15 Izvestiya (Moscow), Apr. 30, 1989.
16 TASS, Nov. 15, 1989.
17 Radio Moscow International Service, Jan. 30, 1990.
18 Pravda (Moscow), Nov. 15, 1989.
19 The New York Times, May 8, 1989; "Peace and Progress," May 12.
20 "Peace and Progress," May 12, 1989.
21 Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Mar. 19, 1989.
22 Argumenty I Fakty (Moscow), Nov. 18-24, 1989.
23 Clyde R. Mark, "Israel: U.S. Loan Guarantees for Settling Immigrants," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Nov. 22, 1996, pp. 1-2.
24 Clandestine Al-Quds Palestinian Arab radio, Feb. 3, 1990.
25 Izvestiya, Mar. 9, 1990.
26 Al-Anba (Kuwait), Apr. 20, 1990.
27 "Subject: PLO Reaction to Events in the U.S.S.R.," Embassy of Israel in the United States, Aug. 23, 1991.