Commentary Magazine


Where Is the Peace Process Going?

Still another moment of transition is occurring in Israel as the government of Yitzhak Rabin moves toward implementing the next phase of the agreement it struck in September 1993 with the PLO in Oslo. As at earlier stages, the arrival of this moment has been beset by delays—for reasons that are not far to seek. Although incidents of Arab terror abated sharply in the months just prior to the deadline for this further extension of Palestinian self-rule, the previous year had been marked by a tremendous increase in anti-Israel violence, and within Israel itself the feeling had become widespread that the entire Oslo “process” had failed—indeed, had perhaps been misconceived from the outset.

That judgment was not limited to Rabin’s parliamentary opposition and its supporters in the electorate. The Israeli military, normally extremely reticent about political matters, was quite blunt about the unfolding implementation of the Oslo accords in Gaza and Jericho. Thus, on May 3 of this year, Amnon Shahak, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot: “The security situation in Gaza is far from being something to which one can give a passing grade.” Shaul Mofaz, who as head of the IDF’s southern command has operational responsibility for the Gaza area, told the same newspaper two weeks earlier that Arafat “has not met the conditions of the agreement he signed.” In Mofaz’s words, “Arafat . . . has failed, failed, failed.”

The Israeli man in the street was no less outspoken. If ordinary Israelis had one main priority which they hoped their government would address in any peace settlement, it was personal security; in 1992, the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir had fallen from power after a spate of knifing incidents that sapped public confidence. But whereas, during the worst years of the intifada, Israeli fatalities in terrorist incidents had ranged from 14 to 40 annually, in the past year Israeli fatalities shot up to over 80. Moreover, the sporadic knifings of the pre-1992 period were now replaced with a far more lethal form of terrorism: bus bombings. And these attacks were directed for the most part not at Israeli settlements in the administered territories but at the populace in the heart of pre-1967 Israel. (Some of the more spectacular terrorist incidents, like the kidnapping and murder of Nahshon Waxman, were in fact the work of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons after Oslo.) As two leading Israeli journalists concluded in mid-May: “From the start, Rabin marketed the Oslo agreement as an answer to a security problem. In this sense, the agreement has been revealed to be until today a failure.”

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If such sentiments are justified, it bodes ill for the next stage of the Oslo agreement, no matter how warily Israel enters into it and despite temporary respites from terrorism. Are they justified?

To answer that question properly, one has to go back to the beginning of the process by which Israel got itself entangled in its almost-two-year-old agreements with the PLO. Until now this has not been easy to do, for the literature on the genesis of the process is, surprisingly, rather scant. Each of the other major turning points in the country’s recent history—the Camp David accords, the Lebanon war, the intifada—quickly generated a half-dozen or more books analyzing the political forces involved and the implications of the events in question. By contrast, the Declaration of Principles (DOP) between Israel and the PLO, probably the most important diplomatic agreement negotiated in Israel’s short history, and a story that begs for interpretation and insight, went relatively untreated except for a few memoirs by those involved.

Now, however, David Makovsky, the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, has come the closest to doing for Oslo what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did in the United States for Watergate. Unlike the mass-market books that come out of the Washington press corps, though, Making Peace With the PLO1 is a work of scholarship. Makovsky is especially careful not to allow himself to get drawn into the pre-Oslo debate within Israel over whether peace with the Palestinians was possible, and he is equally careful to avoid the even more polarized debate that has taken place in Oslo’s aftermath. He does not try to judge the Israeli government’s decision-making process, only to understand and explain it.

Nevertheless, and despite its restraint, Making Peace With the PLO is fascinating to read, and it offers a vital resource to anyone wishing to reach his own conclusions about what exactly happened back in September 1993, and what it means.

The outline of the story Makovsky tells is well-enough known, of course. A secret dialogue takes place in early 1993 between two obscure Israeli academics and the PLO in Oslo, Norway. The academics are connected with Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, a man whom Prime Minister Rabin had dismissed years earlier on Israeli television as the “poodle” of his arch-rival, Shimon Peres. Now, with Peres serving, ironically enough, as Rabin’s Foreign Minister, the dialogue evolves into a full-blown negotiation that, with Rabin’s apparent blessing and support, circumvents the official peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians going on simultaneously in Washington. With astonishing rapidity an agreement is concluded by mid-summer, and the DOP is rushed to Washington for signing. The full prestige of the Clinton presidency is mobilized to back the accord, culminating in the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn.

Those are the bare bones; Making Peace With the PLO does much to flesh them out.

One thing that emerges with particular clarity from Makovsky’s account is that the initial contacts between Israel and the PLO were put, fate-fully, into the hands of people with a far greater interest in economics than in security, and with no experience or training as negotiators. That was certainly the case with the two academics, Yair Hirschfeld of Haifa University and Ron Pundik of the Hebrew University, who pioneered the Oslo channel. In a clear reflection of their interests and biases, the text of the DOP was full of references to economic-cooperation projects and joint-business ventures. And the Norwegian sponsors of the contacts were equally prone, as Makovsky notes, to invoke “the experience of the European Community in transforming political relations by institutionalizing shared economic endeavor.”

Yet, on the assumption that the Rabin government was irretrievably bent on opening a channel to the PLO, there were other possible routes to go. Shlomo Gazit, the former chief of military intelligence who had been IDF coordinator for the territories back in 1967, had PLO contacts, as did Labor MR Ephraim Sneh, who once headed the civil administration in Judea and Samaria. Either of these men would have brought to the discussions more military experience than what was on offer from Hirschfeld and Pundik. Or Rabin could have picked a loyal political appointee with a background in security and sent him to Norway along with the two academics.

As things stood, however, every major Israeli security organization—the Mossad, the General Security Services, Israeli military intelligence, as well as the IDF—was cut out of the loop; as Makovsky stresses, Oslo lay exclusively in the hands of the two academics from January until mid-May. On May 21, a week after Rabin had given his consent to the proceedings, the first Israeli official, Uri Savir, director general of the Foreign Ministry, joined the talks; yet Savir, although he could make a political assessment for His boss, Shimon Peres, had not participated in previous Arab-Israeli negotiations. Only on June 11 were the talks further strengthened on the Israeli side by the inclusion of Joel Singer, who had served in the advocate-general’s office of the IDF and had provided staff work for military talks with Egypt in the late 1970′s. But this left very little time for official input; the DOP was completed and initialed by both parties in Oslo on August 20.

In other words, the truly serious phase of Oslo was not more than six weeks in duration. In an interview with Makovsky, Joel Singer (who is now the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry) conceded that what had gone before had made his job that much more difficult: “If someone who is not a doctor is performing an appendectomy and in the middle of the operation he turns it over to you, you cannot just start from scratch.”

But the real problem with the two academics was not their lack of negotiating skills; after all, as Makovsky observes, they had “received only minimal instructions from Beilin” and certainly had not been given any mandate to reach an agreement. Their chief role, at least at first, was to test the PLO’s seriousness and to ascertain its true position. But just here lay the weakness of the whole enterprise. Makovsky writes:

Rabin was highly dependent for information regarding the Oslo negotiations upon the two men who were most intimately involved in the evolution of the Oslo process and therefore had the greatest stake in its success: Peres and Beilin.

And Peres and Beilin were dependent, in turn, on the two academics. All four of Rabin’s “evaluators,” in other words, were true believers in both the possibility and the desirability of a “dialogue” with the PLO. For any one of them to have concluded, after initial discussion, that the contact with Arafat should be discontinued would have meant burying one of the central items of faith on the Israeli Left. In other words, Rabin, to say the least, did not have the benefit of impartial advisers.

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What might such advisers have told him? One of the underlying assumptions of Oslo was that the PLO would have both the will and the capacity to fight the extremists in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and hence protect Israel from terror. Makovsky quotes Joel Singer: “They [the PLO] kept saying all the time that Arafat could and would stop terrorism . . . , that Arafat would make the difference.” After Oslo was signed, Rabin assured the Israeli public that the PLO would know how to take care of the fundamentalists, and, as he put it in his famously blunt manner, Arafat would not be hampered by the Israeli human-rights lobby and the Supreme Court. Yet independent analysis might have warned Rabin that this would not be the case. As Makovsky writes in one of his strongest judgments concerning the first months of the agreement’s implementation, “This appears to be one of the big miscalculations of Oslo.”

It is easy to reconstruct how the miscalculation transpired. Across the Middle East, from Algeria to Egypt, Arab nationalist regimes were facing a militant Islamic challenge. Most had not hesitated to unleash the full fire-power of their internal-security forces against armed fundamentalist factions. In the 1980′s, moreover, Israel itself had created a South Lebanese Army to fight Hezbollah. Why could not something like this be recreated in the Gaza Strip, and later extended to the West Bank? Since the DOP was to be implemented in stages, Arafat would have built-in incentives for cooperating with Israel against Hamas—good behavior would mean getting the next chunk of territory under his control that much sooner.

But things did not work out as the architects of Oslo expected. Elsewhere in the Arab world, extreme Islamist forces had been challenging political establishments in place since the 1950′s. Arafat, by contrast, was only getting started, and was immeasurably weaker than any Arab head of state.

Nor, more significantly, was Arafat’s own calculus what the Rabin government imagined it would be. After the signing of the DOP, terrorist attacks were regularly followed by a summit meetings at which Rabin would grimace, invoke the displeasure of Washington, and demand better performance by the Palestinian police. For Arafat, though, as unpleasant as these meetings could be, they were clearly preferable to the full-scale Palestinian civil war that a crackdown on the fundamentalists might have sparked.

Nor was even that all. It soon became evident that Rabin did not possess any real power of sanction against Arafat. To suspend the agreement itself—that is, to admit to failure—would be to incur an enormous political price at home which Rabin was clearly not prepared to pay. And even if the agreement were suspended, Arafat would not have lost much; the DOP, which he had negotiated in weakness, had gotten him Gaza and Jericho, and if the negotiations over the rest of the interim-status arrangements should be canceled, the possibility still lay open for jumping directly to final-status talks.

That, at least, is how things unfolded. What Makovsky’s description makes clear is that any number of people might have told Rabin there was a good chance they would unfold in just that way.

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Other eventualities might have been anticipated as well. Makovsky does not get heavily involved in the economic assumptions behind Oslo—the area where the experts were supposed to enjoy a professional advantage—yet here, too, grave errors were made.

In particular, there was an expectation of a major cash windfall: international aid would rain on the occupied territories, and a new Singapore would rise from the sands of the Gaza Strip. As noted above, this scenario had political implications: with Gaza industrialized, thousands of new jobs created, and the standard of living on the rise, fewer young people would be attracted to the ranks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Or so at least the logic ran. Economic growth was seen as a good in itself, and also as a precursor of political and military security.

In reality, during the first six months of the Palestinian administration the standard of living in the Gaza Strip did not rise—it fell by some 25 percent. Continued terrorist action forced Rabin to close off Israel repeatedly to Palestinian workers, and within Gaza itself nowhere near enough new jobs were created. Although some recent local investment by the upper strata of Gazan society has generated more construction activity, it has been of insufficient scale to affect any large number of Gazan refugees. In the end, terror and security considerations have dictated economic conditions, not the reverse.

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Finally, Oslo would prove from the very beginning to have highly deleterious effects on the status of Jerusalem.

Ever since 1967, Israeli governments had been prepared to discuss the rights of various religions to the holy places of Jerusalem. But no Israeli government prior to that of Yitzhak Rabin ever expressed an explicit and unqualified readiness to put Jerusalem itself on the table. This is what the DOP did in making the city a subject for negotiations with the opening of final-status talks scheduled (according to the original timetable) for May 1996.

Rabin’s defenders might say there was a precedent for this: Yitzhak Shamir had gone to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 with the understanding that all sides could bring any subject at all to the table. But however reckless this might have seemed at the time, Shamir had no intention of giving up control of the negotiating agenda, which in diplomacy is the first line of defense in protecting assets a nation does not want to concede. It was this outer line that fell at Oslo. Whether the Israelis realized it or not, the Palestinians certainly did, and celebrated the fact.

In the words of PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath:

[T]he Israelis up to this agreement never accepted that the final status of Jerusalem be on the agenda of the permanent status negotiations. . . . This [the DOP] calls into question the legality and finality of their annexation.

Faisal al-Husseini was even more explicit:

In the Oslo accords it was established that the status of Jerusalem is open to negotiations on the final arrangement, and the moment that you say yes to negotiations, you are ready for a compromise.

Of course, no more than Yitzhak Shamir did Yitzhak Rabin have any intention of giving up an inch of Jerusalem to the PLO. To the contrary, he looked to the DOP as an instrument that would help protect Israel’s position in the city—specifically, by allowing Jericho to evolve into an alternative administrative center for the Palestinians. But the PLO quickly installed two ministers of the Palestinian Authority (PA) inside Jerusalem itself. One of them, Faisal al-Husseini, now minister without portfolio, converted his family’s property, known as Orient House, from an Arab-studies society to an administrative center at which major foreign dignitaries were received. The PA also opened at least five other institutions in Jerusalem. The PA’s security chief in Jericho, Jabril Rajoub, regularly sent his men into East Jerusalem to seize Palestinians and bring them to his headquarters for interrogation; by the end of June 1994, as Rabin himself admitted in response to a parliamentary inquiry, some 200 Palestinian security personnel were operating in East Jerusalem. All these acts violated explicit clauses in the Oslo and Gaza-Jericho agreements, but Rabin did not combat them.

To judge by Makovsky’s account, Arafat deserves high marks for successfully manipulating the Israeli Prime Minister over the Jerusalem issue. Essentially he pursued a double track, ordering the Palestinian delegation at the official peace talks in Washington to demand that the PLO be given some jurisdiction in Jerusalem already in the interim phase, while instructing his people in Oslo to take a more moderate position and agree to put off discussion of arrangements in the city until the beginning of final-status talks. Faced with a hard line in Washington, and seemingly greater flexibility in Oslo, Rabin gravitated toward the latter.

Arafat’s Jerusalem ploy appears to have been behind Rabin’s decision in May 1993 to upgrade the Oslo talks to the official governmental level. Indeed, one might say that an Israeli willingness to put Jerusalem on the table and at least theoretically envisage its future division is what finally made Oslo possible—surely not what Rabin had in mind, but just as surely something that cooler heads might have pointed out to him at the time, had they been consulted.

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In light of what Makovsky tells us, it is hardly any wonder that so many in Israel came to the conclusion by May of this year that Oslo represented a dead end. For the implementation of the DOP manifestly had failed to enhance Israeli security; failed to improve Palestinian well-being and hence reduce grievances; and failed to protect Jerusalem from the penetration of the PLO. Nevertheless, despite this general failure, the Rabin government persisted in its course, and made clear its intention of moving forward to the DOP’s next stages. Why? The answer comes in several parts.

While the conservative portion of the Israeli political community has all along viewed Oslo as a fundamental if not a catastrophic blunder, some on the Left have stressed that, no matter how flawed it may be at any point in its implementation, it represents the correct strategic path. This has been implicit in Rabin’s own rhetoric. After virtually each terrorist attack last year, he voiced his conviction that the only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was through a “separation” of the two peoples. To that end, Oslo has been the means.

Many Israelis, indeed, Left, Right, and Center alike, are attracted by the notion that the Palestinians can be put behind some enormous fortification near the pre-June 1967 borders—a kind of Great Wall of China on the Green Line. For those on the Left who adhere to this view, the real barrier to success has been not the inability or the refusal of the PLO to adhere to the provisions of the DOP, but rather the existence of Israeli settlements built during the years of Likud rule—settlements which Rabin was, at least at first, reluctant to give up. As Makovsky writes, “In private discussions, Israeli negotiators in Oslo admitted that negotiating a quick divorce would have been their preference, but the refusal of Rabin to dismantle settlements at an early stage stood as an impediment.” From this it would seem to follow that the way to deal with Oslo’s failures is not to discard the agreement but, on the contrary, to accelerate the process of “separation.”

In fact, however, all this talk of separation is just another way to avoid confronting Oslo’s central problem. Separation is based on the principle that good fences make good neighbors. But Israel’s history—indeed, the history of every nation in the world—shows that what is true is precisely the reverse: good neighbors make good fences. Where, as with Jordan, Israel enjoys such relatively good neighbors, fences supply security. Where it has bad neighbors, as in Lebanon, fences are wholly inadequate, and successive Israeli governments have had to introduce “security zones” to protect the country’s border.

The architects of Oslo thought they could simply ignore the fact that every single one of the cruxes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Jerusalem, borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees—remained unresolved. Instead, they proceeded to treat Arafat as though he were already the head of a neighboring state with which Israel happened to have a few, wholly containable, differences. As a thought experiment, this may have had something to recommend it; in reality, it foundered drastically on its own radically mistaken premise.

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Where, then, is the peace process going? Few would advocate that a future Israeli government should return to the Gaza Strip. But the current focus is on the West Bank, which, unlike Gaza, is right next to Israel’s major population centers, as well as to 80 percent of the country’s industrial capacity; whatever happens there bears on Israel’s security, and indeed on its day-to-day existence, in the most direct way imaginable, and the perils are obviously enormous.

For one thing, as Yaakov Amidror, head of analysis for military intelligence, has acutely pointed out, the withdrawal of the IDF from West Bank cities, called for in the next phase of the agreement, may well reduce the PA’s incentive to quell anti-Israel violence; terrorist organizations will no longer have to worry about local counter-measures by the Israeli military. But that is by no means all.

When the DOP was reached, it appeared that Israel had definitively abandoned its historic (under-the-table) alliance with Jordan, and from now on would give pride of place to its new relationship with the PLO. King Hussein himself stepped in to correct this distortion by completing his own agreement with Israel during 1994. Now, however, Israel appears about to place in power in the West Bank a political movement—the PLO—openly hostile to the Hashemite throne in Amman, thereby undermining both Israel’s own interest and that of the United States in maintaining a moderate buffer state between the radicalism of the Fertile Crescent and Saudi Arabia’s northwestern frontier.

One might have imagined an alternative course of action, and correspondingly different outcomes. Even today, when it is very difficult to envision a full-scale Jordanian role in the West Bank, one can still speculate whether many West Bank Palestinians might not prefer a tie with a strong, stable Jordan to one with Arafat’s weak and chaotic Gaza. They might, indeed, have preferred such an arrangement even before the DOP, though it would have been impossible for them to say so. In light of what has occurred since Oslo, and what unfortunately appears likely to unfold in the next stage of implementation, is it inconceivable that West Bank Palestinians might yet begin to see their self-interest in more pragmatic and less ideologically charged terms?

For that to happen, however, and for all the interested parties in the region to be in a position to seek better alternatives than today’s, the DOP would have to be permitted to lapse. But the chances of that happening, so long as the architects of Oslo are directing Israel’s peace policy, remain slim indeed.

In the short run, therefore, one must look to other avenues. One thing that would have at least a somewhat salutary effect on the flawed Oslo agreements is a reordering of their priorities, giving primacy to the security needs of Israel in the next, crucial phase of implementation. Here, as David Makovsky’s doleful chronicle reminds us, lies the heart of the Oslo “miscalculation.” But it very much remains to be seen whether such a reordering will be put into place in the months ahead.


Footnotes

1 To be published in the fall by Washington Institute for Near East Policy/Westview.

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