Where We Stand Now -- Winners and Losers

Transition Towards Permanent Status

The Role of the International Community
The Role of North America
The Role of Neighboring Countries

May 13, 1997

See Also:
Israeli Palestinian Cooperation?
The Myth of the Jordan Valley

With the Oslo peace process seemingly coming to a close without producing real peace, it is time to reevaluate the entire strategy of the peace process and the US role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Where are we now?

Prime Minister Netanyahu has succeeded in advancing settlements in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza thus causing a breakdown in the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu was never really interested in moving ahead with the peace process because he understood from the outset of the Oslo process that the main variable in question is territory. Oslo set out to transfer territory from Israel to the Palestinians in a gradual process that would lead to discussions on levels and scope of sovereignty rather than on who holds which territory. The game plan was supposed to bring about a situation under which the Palestinians have in their possession close to 90% of the territory of the West Bank before reaching a final status agreement on the nature of the Palestinian entity.

When Mr. Netanyahu agreed to enter into the Oslo game he knew what the rules were and what were the expectations. He also knew that he would vie to change the rules of the game and by that empty the Oslo process from its main ingredient. This was his strategy from day one of his administration and he has accomplished his goal. Oslo is frozen. According to him, if the Palestinians wish to continue to discuss final status they must agree from now on that they recognize they will only get about 50% of the territory under their control - no more. Mr. Netanyahu's settlement plans were devised in such a way as to make clear his refusal to relinquish additional territories. His recent comments about final status are more than a clear indication of his strategy.

Mr. Arafat is empty handed in his ability to thwart Israeli plans from making him the ruler of Gaza (or 2/3 of Gaza) and less than 50% of the West Bank. Mr. Arafat has been unable to rally the support of a frustrated and despairing public. Hamas is also not gaining support because the Palestinian public also doesn't believe that they can deliver. There is always the chance and the probability that individual terrorists or terror cells supported by Hamas or Jihad will take action. Arafat knows that this will not help his situation and therefore his troops are still keeping a close vigil on those potential terrorists. Of course, this is not fool proof and individuals can slip through at any time.

Arafat is clearly trying to rally the support of the Arab world with Egypt taking the lead. But even Egypt is limited in its ability to pressure Israel or the United States. Egypt is deeply dependent on US aid and despite calls from within the Mubarak government and the Egyptian Parliament to unilaterally do away with US aid, at the present time there seems little chance that this will occur. The Arab world has frozen contacts with Israel, yet this too has little influence in changing the course of events.

The US seems unable or unwilling to use its influence with the sides to get the peace process back on course. More and more, Dennis Ross is being perceived by the Palestinians as an agent of Israel in Washington. Mr. Ross has allegedly proposed to the Palestinians that the US will get an Israeli agreement to freeze Har Homa-Jabel Abu Ghuneim if the Palestinians recognize the other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. If this is true, it shows a complete lack of awareness and sensitivity to the entire issue of settlements and the Palestinians' position regarding the future of the territories. Instead of removing one issue which blocks final status talks in the spirit of the agreement, the alleged proposal puts a final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. Most Palestinians believe that this was Ross's latest proposal and most Palestinians believe that Oslo is dead.

Recently General Shlomo Yanai, the head of the IDF's Southern Command, said that the next time violence erupts his troops would be given clear "shoot-to-kill" orders against the Palestinian police. It has been reported that Israel has thousands of troops amassed in Gaza now in preparation for those events. Palestinians have reportedly been building underground bunkers and installments in case of Israeli entry into Areas "A" under Palestinian control. Palestinian and Israeli soldiers who are still participating in joint patrols are increasingly suspicious of each other and violence on the ground could spontaneously break out at any time.

In light of this situation, as Israel is "sitting tight" and the Palestinians are trying (unsuccessfully) to get the international community to make sanctions against Israel, it is important to determine what role various players could fulfill.

First, the Palestinians and their supporters.

The Palestinians must be much better prepared to meet the challenges of the negotiations. It often seems that the Palestinians don't determine in advance their positions in details and in a well thought out way. There are usually no fall-back positions or logical negotiation exchanges, packages or deals prepared from the outset. Because there often lacks coherent and creative Palestinian strategic thinking, no real Palestinian decisions are made with regard to possible compromises and demands in exchange for compromises, thus it often appears that any Palestinian compromise is an act of surrender and/or impotence.

Israeli negotiation style, tactics and practice are clearly based on quid pro quo. Israel of Labour or Likud does not give anything away for "free." Palestinians are demanded by Israel to pay for every concession. Yet it is quite clear to all that Palestinians are holding significantly fewer cards in their hands than the Israelis. Many Palestinians ask: what is left to give? When I ask Palestinians what cards they still hold, I receive from them answers which are anachronistic and which, in my view damage the Palestinian position. They say that the Palestinians hold cards such as the card of violence (the armed struggle), fundamentalism, etc. All of these positions are much more damaging to the Palestinians than to Israel. Palestinians who answer the question with answers like the ones above are continuing to play a game which is no longer being played. The rules have changed, the cards have changed and it seems that the Palestinians are still holding on to their old cards without realizing that a new game has begun. By playing old cards or by trying to make these kinds of cards relevant, the Palestinians allow Israel to capture and hold onto the higher moral ground.

Once Israel argues its position from a position of morality, it immediately puts the Palestinians on the defensive and that further weakens an already weak position. The Israelis then exploit their moral position in the international arena and this seriously hurts and undermines the Palestinian position. This is clearly the case now when claims of Palestinian corruption and abuses of human rights which all appear to be quite true are broadcasted in the international media. The arrest or the submission of Palestinian journalists to physical pressure or to threats of arrest only further to weaken the Palestinian position. And even more weakening are the murders of untried and non-convicted people allegedly selling land to Israelis. An act which should be condemned by an outraged public is instead supported by the vast majority of the Palestinian public. This clearly does not score points and most certainly weakens the Palestinians position and the view of their public morality and view of the rule of law and justice. They should not attempt to imitate the worst examples of Israeli policies, they should strive to be well above them in a moral case which has considerable justice on their side.

In a game where one side is so much stronger than the other, it is very important for the weak side to capture the moral high ground for itself. Having the Israeli side fully understand the weakness of the Palestinian side, and even empathizing with it, the Palestinians can reach out and capture the higher moral ground.

But this is not enough. The Palestinians must verbalize and demonstrate their commitment to peace and coexistence. The moral high ground will not be captured by entering into polemics about morality, or who was victimized by who, who suffered more, etc. Palestinians will capture the higher moral ground by demonstrating that the Palestinian strategy, aims and even dream, are sincerely to achieve real and full peace with Israel and to arrive at full reconciliation with the people of Israel. This is the same tactic that has been employed by Israel for decades and that is one of the reasons why Israel appeared for so long to be in possession of the higher moral grounds. This kind of position would be very effective in bringing our more substantial Israeli concessions on real issues.

The United States has a number of choices to consider. Egypt has accepted the role as a pitch-hitter in the mediator's seat, but with continued Israeli intransigence, it is unlikely that Mubarak can keep his esteem in the Arab world and continue to play the game according to the Netanyahu rules.

One possibility is to continue, as is being done now, with low level, low intensity efforts to find some kind of procedural breakthrough aimed at getting the sides to the table. The latest version of this is "let's sit down and talk about why we're not talking." In my view, this will lead no where and only plays into Mr. Netanyahu's hands who doesn't really want to move forward anyhow.

Another US option would be to say, "as long as the parties don't want to progress there is nothing to do, so you have the telephone number of the White House and the State Department - call us when you're ready." This strategy also plays into the hands of those who do not wish to advance and opens the doors to the extremists and the enemies of peace. It also paints a picture of the US administration as being weak and ineffectual in international affairs. The US could strengthen this strategy by dissociating itself from the Israeli settlement policy and letting it be known that "while the US supports Israel and its defensive needs, the US has strong reservations about Israel's settlement policies that are an obstacle to peace and until there is a change in the status quo, Mr. Netanyahu is not a welcome guest in the White House or the State Department." This would be the final isolation of Mr. Netanyahu and his government. This kind of step would gain credibility for the United States in the region as a fair mediator. It would strengthen the position of the United States as a leader in solving regional conflicts. It would not jeopardize Israel's security because strategically Israel remains a strong ally of the United States. It would, though, send a clear message to the Israeli public that the United States means business and that it is more serious about the peace process than the Israeli government itself.

Another possible strategy for the US would be to upgrade and intensify the US position in the peace process. Perhaps it is time for higher level intervention. Perhaps the time has come for Mrs. Albright to say, "I'll teach those guys a lesson - I'll show them who they're doing business with." This is the strategy that could be the most effective, if it was serious. Precious time is being wasted and unnecessary suffering has already befallen more victims and God only knows how much more suffering is ahead of us. A strong US position, such as the one taken by Bush-Baker after the Gulf War could be effective in impressing upon the sides the urgent need to make the tough decisions now which will have to be made in the future anyway. This strategy requires determination and full agreement between the White House and the State Department. It requires the political will of the President and his clear commitment to place the full weight of the power of his office behind his decision to conclude a full peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Of the three options presented above, the option of waiting for the sides to act is clearly the worst and I hope and pray that the US will not adopt this policy. The next worst option is the one that is being pursued today - trying to use low level, low intensity mediation to find procedural mechanisms to get the sides to talk. This option will not lead to any real progress. It only wastes time and adds to growing frustration and continual loss of hope.

Who wins and who loses? Right now, everyone but Netanyahu is losing. The US is losing because it is seen as weak. Arafat is the biggest loser because he can't deliver anything to his public and his public has lost faith in him as a leader. The Jordanians are losing because peace cannot continue to exist between Israel and Jordan without progress with the Palestinians, this is a direct threat on the continued reign of the Hashimite monarchy. Mubarak and Egypt lose because while they can rally the support of the Arab world against Israel, they are not completely free actors. Egypt is more limited than Assad and Syria who are not dependent on US aid. The Iranians win because extremism and fundamentalism prevail when reason and logic wane. It Iraqis are winners because anytime the US fails in achieving strategic aims in the region Saddam is happy. The people of Israel both win and lose at the same time because Israelis want peace but don't want to pay the price. Until there is recognition in Israel that "you can't eat the cake and keep it at the same time," peace will not be achieved.

We are at the point where I believe this is our last chance. If we fail to exploit the little time left for this peace process, another opportunity may not return for a very long time and certainly after much time mean after much bloodshed and suffering. The Oslo process may be dead. It may require that a new initiative be developed which will bring us beyond Oslo. The issues are becoming more complex rather simpler. Final status talks may require taking a more regional perspective toward decisions that must be made.

If in the present situation only Netanyahu is winning there is clearly something wrong with the strategy that is being played out. If only Netanyahu is winning the time has come to reevaluate and change course. The United States must face up to the responsibility that it took upon itself that it launched the peace process. If the United States is to remain credible as the leader of the world, it cannot continue and play the game according to the rules set out by only one of the sides.

I don't believe that Mr. Netanyahu has anything new and substantial to offer the Palestinians. Even additional building for Palestinians in East Jerusalem without freezing the building in Jabel Abu Ghunaim is a condition which demands for the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of Israeli building in East Jerusalem. I will be most surprised if Arafat agrees to these terms.

I am convinced more than ever that a possible breakthrough can be found in the tri-lateral (Jordan, Palestine, Israel) formula. A creative way must be found to establish a triangular table for discussing the future of the peace process. Perhaps the launching of a new initiative based upon a regional approach involving the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan could help to add more confidence to the process. This is not aimed at removing the chance of Palestinian sovereignty but strengthening that option by linking it to a regional framework that could provide better solutions for issues of security and economic development. Many of the final status issues may be easier to confront in a trilateral framework than in a bilateral one. Arrangements between Jordan and Palestine and between Jordan and Israel will be integral parts of final status arrangements between the Palestinians and Israel so why not try to bring the Jordanians in now. Adopting this kind of an approach could potentially provide a new life for the peace process.

But it is quite clear to me that under the current political constellation there is very little that can be achieved. The Palestinians must concentrate on building the institutions of their state. They must be much more focused on creating a real democracy. The supporters of Palestine in the international community must link their efforts on behalf of Palestine to a line which supports human rights and Palestinian democracy. People, institutions, organizations, NGO's and governments which support Palestinian rights and primarily the right of self determination must make the Palestinian leadership understand that autocracy and corruption are damaging to the chances of the existence of a Palestinian state and severely weaken the possibilities of peace. I am deeply concerned about this issue as we all should be.

I am deeply concerned about the possibility of another 3 1/2 years of an Israeli government which will continue to build settlements and which will not honor its commitments in the peace process. The Israelis will in a very sophisticated way accentuate Palestinian violations and breaches of the agreement. The only way to prevent this is to be extremely careful and to fully carry out Palestinian obligations - to the letter of the agreement. Failure to do so weakens the Palestinian case much more than Israeli violations do to the Israeli case. This has a lot to do with power politics and international relations.

The Palestinians must keep their alliances with the pro-peace forces in Israel, even if these seem weak and ineffective. It is very important not to alienate them.

Lastly I would suggest that the Palestinians and the friends of Palestine begin to engage in serious efforts of pro-active constructive diplomacy based on Palestinian peace initiatives which are well thought out and realistic. This is perhaps counter to what is perceived as normal middle eastern tactics of market bargaining. In the present time, presenting absolute Palestinian demands will do little to strengthen their claims, their position or their bargaining ability. Concentration of proposals which attempt to answer not only Palestinian vital interests but Israeli vital interests as well will have a greater chance of being accepted, of creating hope and of moving the peace process forward. If this is not done, then the chances of war are almost certain and while another Mid East war will be very costly to Israel, the Palestinians will end up paying the highest price. Let's work together, positively to avoid that tragedy.

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