Barry Rubin, a senior resident scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, is author of Revolution Until Victory?: The Politics and History of the PLO (Harvard University Press, 1994).
Editor's note: The September issue carried an article by Barry Rubin, "Is the Arab-Israeli Conflict over?" followed by two critiques.
I agree with some of the points made by David Bar-Illan and Martin Peretz in response to my article about the decline of the Arab-Israel conflict, in particular those about the Middle East's remaining a tumultuous region and that full Arab-Israeli peace remains unfulfilled. Further, I have written on the Palestinian Authority's misdeeds in the pages of Bar-Illan's newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, and criticized U.S. policy toward Syria in the pages of Peretz's magazine, The New Republic.
That said, I disagree with their basic arguments: they believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict continues more-or-less unchanged, while I see that a political issue that once dominated the Middle East is disappearing, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, as a real and central factor in regional politics. With the exception of Egypt after 1978, all Arab states and the Palestinians for nearly forty years unanimously rejected Israel's existence, maintained a state of war, fought Israel whenever possible, and insisted they would never make peace with it. This is no longer true. The Arab-Israeli conflict was no mere normal international dispute, but a unique phenomenon--portrayed by all Arabs as the unquestioned top priority, a battle where no compromise was conceivable, where advocating peace with Israel was tantamount to treachery. Now, when Arab states or the Palestinian leadership verbally attacks Israel, they demand it make peace with them on terms they in earlier years would have found unacceptable. In this sense, as it existed so obviously and powerfully between 1948 and 1993, the Arab-Israeli conflict is over.
Bar-Illan argues that my article mistakenly attempts to understand the course of an overly complex, irrational issue. In fact, I have looked at ways that ideologies have shifted, experiences have altered conditions, and Realpolitik has influenced leaders. In contrast, Bar-Illan's own view is simplistic. Despite some references to evolution, his essential argument remains: Nothing really ever changes. The Arab states and peoples have a desire to destroy Israel that is not subject to any change due to experience, losses, thinking, or development. It is eternal.
He would have us believe that the Camp David agreements, Iraq-Iran War, Israel's agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Iraq's defeat in Kuwait, the USSR's collapse, Israel's survival and strengthening, Islamic radical threats to regimes, and many other historical events have not had an impact on Arab views of Israel. In Bar-Illan's view, the Arabs never learn anything. Arab states and governments are not subject to any of the factors that shape other polities. Once you know that the Arab world's main obsession is destroying Israel, you know everything you need to know. National or regime interests, changing generations, wars, defeats, and economic needs have no place in their worldview.
Actually, he does acknowledge one change -- though a not very new one and only a slight alteration in tactics: since 1974, the Arabs wish to destroy Israel in stages. Yet, if Bar-Illan accepts the reality of the PLO's 1974 plan, why does he ignore the PLO's plans of 1988, 1991, and 1993? The organization has experienced real debates and bitter splits. True, many in the West perceived change in the past prematurely, but the evidence of profound--if not total--change is overwhelming today.
Consider Yasir Arafat, a man who probably never went a single day of his adult life until September 1993 without calling for the liberation of all Palestine, but who has not made a single such speech along those lines since then. The Fatah organization carried out terrorism of various kinds for thirty years but has not formally engaged in a single such act since then. The PLO now insists on demands quite different from those of the past: an independent Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in east Jerusalem as a permanent solution to the conflict.
There has been a soul-wrenching debate among Palestinians and a real policy change. Of course, many do not agree with Arafat's course; even many of Arafat's supporters harbor hatred and extremist impulses. The Palestinian Authority does not live up to all its commitments to Israel. The riots of September 1996 show how bitter and violent the Israel-Palestinian dispute remains and that full peace is certainly not yet accomplished. But to deny the changes that have occurred is as wrong-headed as claiming that the Sino-Soviet dispute was a trick.
Bar-Illan's only evidence is the continuation of anti-Israel terrorism. But he ignores the fact that people who oppose the changes going on in the region carry out this violence. They want to wreck any progress by convincing their own people--and, indirectly, Americans and Israelis--that the peace process is impossible and undesirable. Knowing that these attacks are being carried out by anti-Arafat elements, he cites Arafat's kind words for Hamas leaders (quite true) and claims there is a secret Arafat-Hamas agreement to carry out terrorism (false, according to Israeli intelligence). He also neglects to note that Arafat's forces have not participated in terrorism, and did clamp down, though unfortunately only in April 1996.
Arafat's actions need to be understood in terms of his maneuvering to maximize his base of support, co-opt the radicals, and unite Palestinians. In many ways, his basic political style remains similar to what it has always been. But if this very approach constrained the PLO for three decades from compromise with Israel, now it is employed for the opposite purpose.
Lastly, Bar-Illan raises the specter of a Syria-Iraq-Iran alliance's attacking Israel, demonstrating his faulty grasp of the region's situation. Of course, radical forces still exist and want to return to the good old days of the conflict, but they are more isolated and weaker than ever before in modern Middle East history.
Bar-Illan states that Arab attitudes have not arrived at "a recognition of the futility of war against Israel, nor an awakening to the need to accept Israel as a permanent and beneficent neighbor." Except for the word "beneficent," this is indeed what has happened. Most Arab leaders are not happy with this situation but accept its inevitability, which explains why no Arab state has launched a war with Israel since 1973. The change has come about as the result of experience: the Arab states' own problems and Israel's power, including the growth of its economy and population, the continuity of U.S. support, and Israel's strategic and technological edge. Grumbling and nasty rhetoric does not alter this strategic reality.
Peretz devotes much of his response to showing that the PLO leaders negotiated with Israel because they "expected to get much of what they wanted." True: but the PLO could do so only after redefining what it wanted. Up to September 1993, the PLO's position was that only a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was acceptable. Once it changed its stance to demand a West Bank/Gaza state, this became a goal that might be attained.
Peretz argues that the Palestine National Council did not change its Palestine National Charter in April 1996. In fact, the PLO handled the issue in a way that largely responded to Israel's requests: the Labor government preferred not to have a line-by-line annulment lest there be disputes over words or sentences. Similarly, Israel preferred there be no new charter, lest it include language (including the demand for all the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem) that might make future negotiations even more difficult.
Peretz complains about Suha Arafat's comment that the Palestinians want a peace with Israel on the Egyptian model, that they do not want a warm, fully normal relationship. But he forgets what a change cold peace is for the PLO leaders, and how much it differs from their aspirations from before 1993.