Commentary Magazine

Israel's New Pollyannas

Until recently, it was not difficult to define the main obstacle to a peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis: the very minimum the Syrians and Palestinians could accept exceeded the maximum Israel could give. In practical terms this meant that since Hafez al-Assad’s Syria could accept no less than what Anwar Sadat’s Egypt received—every inch of land lost to the Israelis in war—and since Israel could not afford to relinquish all this land (which would bring the border to within yards of the Sea of Galilee), an agreement with Syria was impossible.

Similarly, no Palestinian leader could accept anything less than total Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines (usually described as the 1967 borders) and the establishment of a Palestinian state with the eastern half of Jerusalem as its capital, while no Israeli government could allow this to happen. Ergo, the prospects of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement were nonexistent.

All the procedural arguments—the Arabs’ insistence on an international conference rather than direct talks, for instance—were merely a function of these differences. The Arabs, correctly assuming that Israel—no matter who was in the government—would not deliver their minimal demands, saw in a UN-sponsored conference a venue in which the world tribunal would impose an unpalatable settlement on Israel.

That is why the Madrid conference of 1991 was considered a small miracle. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians actually sat down to negotiate in bilateral, direct talks. This, despite the fact that the then-Israeli government was a hawkish Likud-led coalition, headed by the stubborn Yitzhak Shamir, and that to expect it to bend to Palestinian demands for sovereignty in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, or to accept Syrian claims to all of the Golan Heights, was ludicrous.

But the meeting took place at least partly because it was conceived in deception. In secret private letters, the Bush administration was able to convince each participant that the U.S. would support its position. Thus, Syria was promised that the American (and Soviet) sponsors of the talks would not only play an important mediating role when it mattered, but that Washington saw “the return of territories according to [UN] Resolutions 242 and 338”—a formula which to the Arabs translated into total withdrawal—as applicable to the Golan.

Similarly, the U.S. assured the Palestinians that it was still committed to the general outline of the Rogers plan of 1969, which called for virtually complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines, and that it considered the Israeli annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem illegal. In the eyes of the U.S., the Palestinians were reminded, east Jerusalem was still “occupied territory.” (As it happens, even west Jerusalem has not been recognized by the U.S. as part of Israel.) The message was unmistakable: the U.S. would support the establishment of a Palestinian homeland in the territories with east Jerusalem as its capital. Indeed, for the first time since 1967, an American administration refused Israel’s request to say that it actively opposed a Palestinian state.

To assuage Israel’s fears of American support for a Palestinian state, however, the Bush administration specifically agreed to exclude the PLO from the negotiating process, and to insist on a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, thus eliminating any semblance of a separate, independent Palestinian entity. Israel also received a commitment that only inhabitants of the territories could become delegates to the talks. That is, neither residents of Jerusalem nor members of the Palestinian “diaspora” would be eligible.

Furthermore, Israel was assured that the U.S. stood by President Ford’s commitment to “give weight” to Israel’s security concerns in the Golan Heights, that the Jerusalem question would be raised only at a later stage of the negotiations, and that the negotiations would be based on the Camp David formula. This meant an interim period of Palestinian autonomy for five years, with negotiations for a permanent solution beginning after the third year. All options would be left open—including the possibility of an Israeli demand for sovereignty over the territories.



These assurances to the various parties were clearly irreconcilable. Charitably, they were white lies intended to get everyone together in the hope that differences would be ironed out at the negotiating table. A more cynical interpretation would characterize them as a stratagem designed to create an irresistible momentum which would force Israel to yield to the prevailing world demand for total withdrawal. Either way, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not appreciate their import. When asked about the American assurances to the Arabs, he said Israel was not bound by American promises. All that mattered was that the talks were bilateral and direct, and that the U.S. would not interfere.

But conflicting promises have a way of exploding. On the very first day of the Madrid conference, the Palestinian representatives, who were supposed to be included in the Jordanian delegation, were allotted the same space at the table as the other delegations and allowed a separate time slot for their addresses. Armed with American support for them as a distinct delegation, they stalled the negotiations for months until the Israelis yielded. Washington also allowed Faisal Husseini, a resident of Jerusalem and a member of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah (and therefore doubly ineligible for participation), to head an “advisory team” attached to the delegation. He and the team’s spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, promptly became the most sought-after stars of the peace talks. The Jordanian delegation faded into the background.

In addition, the Bush administration circumvented the ban on the PLO by letting senior PLO figures enter the U.S. for the post-Madrid negotiations in Washington. Setting up shop in the delegates’ hotel, they were ostentatiously consulted by the official Palestinian participants before and after every session. The commitment to exclude “diaspora” Palestinians was also broken, when Mohammad Khalaj, a member of the Palestine National Council who lives in America, was included in the negotiations on refugees at the multilateral talks on regional problems. And the final obliteration of the American commitment to exclude the PLO and Jerusalem residents came when Israel (now led by Yitzhak Rabin) agreed, as part of the deal with the U.S. (now led by Bill Clinton) following the expulsion of 400 Hamas agitators, to the formal recognition of Husseini as head of the Palestinian delegation.1



But far more disturbing than the American manipulations were those practiced by the Israeli government itself. For some three years the Syrians had been spreading the word that Assad had had a change of heart. Having lost the sponsorship of the Soviets, he purportedly now realized that he would never achieve strategic parity with Israel—a euphemism for a military capability which would enable him to vanquish Israel alone. Forced to get closer to the West to survive, and aware that the West wanted peace, he was ready to sign an agreement with Israel.

This line was startlingly similar to the argument made in 1990 by Saddam Hussein and his supporters in the West and in Israel. (Among those convinced at the time that Saddam was so eager to curry favor with the West that he would be a natural candidate for a peace treaty with Israel was Ezer Weizman, now Israel’s President.) That Saddam himself proved the fallacy of the argument—he not only betrayed his promises but started a war without Soviet backing—seemed to be forgotten.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who weeks before the invasion of Kuwait had assured Israel of Saddam’s benignity, was credited both with persuading Assad of the advantages of peace and with convincing the U.S. that the Syrian dictator was sincere. As Egypt had discovered, lost land could be retrieved from Israel more easily through peace than by war. And Assad, a reputed pragmatist who had repeatedly vowed to destroy Israel if it took 200 years, now saw that sitting with Israel at the negotiating table made sense. True, to mitigate the implied recognition of the Jewish state the Syrians insisted on calling the negotiations an international conference, but in reality they agreed to participate in strictly bilateral talks.

The Syrians at first found the role of peace partners a little unnatural. But eager to get their country off the State Department list of states which sponsor terrorism, they even chimed in with a confidence-building measure, allowing the gradual emigration of Syrian Jews, provided they did not go to Israel. And as soon as the Israeli delegation, under the Labor government, announced Israel’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, they switched from displays of cold fury to smiles and handshakes. These prompted the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, to proclaim that the developments in Damascus were nothing short of sensational.

What the Syrians made clear, however, was that they expected the negotiations to bring nothing less than full Israeli withdrawal not only from the Golan Heights—small in area but strategically vital for the defense of Israel’s north—but from all areas occupied by Israel in 1967 and 1982. This meant the complete evacuation of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, east Jerusalem, and the security belt in Lebanon.

Nor was Syria willing to sign a full-fledged peace treaty in return. It interpreted Resolution 242 to mean that Israel must withdraw from all captured territory on all fronts (a transparently false reading) and that in return Israel was entitled to nothing more than an end to the state of belligerency which did not include a peace treaty and normalization of relations.

Though aware of the Syrian position, Rabin—who a day before the election had said that anyone abandoning the Golan Heights would be guilty of forsaking Israel’s security—predicted that “within months” Israel and Syria would sign on the dotted line. Members of the cabinet, including Police Minister Moshe Shahal who was known for his closeness to Rabin, openly advocated relinquishing the entire Golan.

To be sure, Rabin himself kept stressing that he would consider withdrawing only on the Golan Heights, not from them. But he kept all options open by allowing that the extent of withdrawal depended on the quality of peace Syria was prepared to offer. This was generally understood to mean that for a full-fledged peace treaty, which would include an exchange of ambassadors and a free flow of people and goods between the two countries, Rabin would forfeit Israeli sovereignty in the Golan and effect a gradual but complete withdrawal. In that case, leaks from government offices averred, to ensure against Syrian aggression, Rabin would insist that the area be demilitarized and the U.S. station troops between Syrians and Israelis.

Rabin’s “you tell me first what kind of peace you want and I’ll tell you how much land I’ll give” created the impression that the Syrians had not made their position clear. Yet soon after the resumption of negotiations under the Labor government, the Syrian delegation submitted a document summarizing its position. It indicated that Damascus had not budged an inch from its insistence on total Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines on all fronts, and that in return it was willing to commit to no more than a state of nonbelligerency.

This document so disappointed the Israeli government that it asked the Syrian delegation not to publish it, a request which may have constituted a historic first: a democratic government asking a dictatorial regime to keep an exchange secret for fear that the information would adversely affect public opinion. To this day, the only open source of the document’s contents is the Arab press to which it was leaked by the Syrians. Israel has yet to release it.2



This, however, was a relatively minor episode in a much more elaborate effort by the Israeli government—one in which the press collaborated—to sell Assad not only as a leader who needed and wanted peace but as a man of honor. The evidence for this, said ministers and columnists, was there for all to see: the separation agreement on the Golan Heights, which had been observed by Syria for twenty years (with the exception of a few forays by terrorists, for which the Syrians were not held responsible). Assad might be a ruthless dictator, but his signature on a contract would be binding.

Forgotten were a few pertinent facts. The reason the Syrians have been careful not to provoke the Israelis on the Golan Heights is that the Israeli army there is within striking distance of Damascus. In Lebanon, where Israeli retaliation can hurt only Hezbollah cadres, Palestinian terrorists, and Shiite villagers, Syria’s scruples about agreements have seemed to disappear.

Indeed, Assad’s record of broken agreements easily matches that of other Middle Eastern dictators. In 1983, he broke a pledge he had made to the Reagan administration (via the Saudis) that he would accept the Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty and withdraw his troops from Lebanon. He did the opposite: as soon as Israel began to get out, he poured more troops into Lebanon. He completed the effective annexation of the country in 1990, after having joined the anti-Iraq coalition and being rewarded by the Bush administration with carte blanche in Beirut. And recently his Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, declared that Lebanon and Syria were “like one country.”

Assad is also in violation of the Saudi-sponsored Taif agreement, endorsed by all the Arab states, which stipulates the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty. This September marks precisely a year since Syrian troops were supposed to have left Beirut.

Even more puzzling is the current Israeli government’s support of the notion—a favorite of European and American diplomats—that Assad is pursuing peace. Hezbollah, the Iranian-financed organization whose almost daily attacks on Israeli targets finally led to the retaliatory strikes of late July, trains its 3-5,000 highly motivated fighters in Syrian camps, under Syrian supervision, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. It is equipped with Syrian arms, including potent Sager missiles, and Iranian arms brought through Damascus. The organization could not have mounted a single major operation against Israel without Syrian approval. Yet as soon as Labor came to power, Hezbollah became an “Iranian organization” operating independently. Indeed, it was only after the cease-fire ending the fighting in late July that Syria’s role in “standing behind” Hezbollah was alluded to by Rabin (which did not prevent him from praising Assad a few days later).

Ignored, too, has been Syrian sponsorship of the Palestinians who openly call for the destruction of the Jewish state by force of arms. Last year, Syria held a conference of the ten “rejectionist” groups—among them Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the radical PLO factions—in Damascus, where many of these organizations have their headquarters. Syria also directs the operation of Radio Al Quds, beamed to the administered territories, which incites Palestinians against the “traitors” in their midst who negotiate with Israel. Unlike their Israeli apologists, the Syrians are quite frank about supporting the “armed struggle” as long as Israel occupies “Arab land.” And they have flatly rejected Israeli demands to disarm Hezbollah and the Palestinians in southern Lebanon. In the peace talks the Syrians have rejected all Israeli suggestions to discuss a truce in Lebanon.

Nor has Assad slowed down the feverish pace of Syrian arming. Having replenished and modernized all branches of its armed forces, Syria surpasses Israel in virtually all major classes of military equipment, let alone in the number of troops. In April, Syria began to manufacture Scud-C missiles in factories near Hama and Aleppo.

Occasionally, Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres mention Syrian missile acquisitions and continued Syrian testing of sophisticated missiles. Israeli field commanders on the northern front also talk gravely of Syria’s formidable new power. But mostly government spokesmen suggest that the Assad regime’s march to peace is inexorable and must not be interrupted with irritating cavils about arms build-ups or backing Hezbollah.

The press is even worse. Not unlike Soviet apologists in the West during the cold war, Assad’s promoters in the Israeli media explain that Syria is just as concerned about an Israeli attack as Israel is about Syrian aggression. Only when ambushes and shelling by Hezbollah cost the lives of Israeli soldiers in July did the press begin to question Syria’s role, gingerly. Yet after the mini-Lebanese war caused by these attacks, Syria was given credit for helping to end it.

The army brass, too, has collaborated in pushing the notion that an agreement with Syria is a sine qua non of peace. The chief of the General Staff, Ehud Barak, making the kind of political pronouncement men in uniform are usually expected to avoid, has warned that failure to achieve an agreement with Syria would trigger a countdown to war. To which one wag responded, “Does such a countdown mean that Syria would start arming?” Barak also extolled Assad as a “responsible leader” following the cease-fire in Lebanon.



A similar make-believe approach has dominated the government line on the Palestinians. Terrorist attacks on Israelis are routinely attributed either to lone Muslim fanatics suddenly driven to murder Jews, or to the actions of Hamas cells. Yet the truth is that a majority of terrorist acts, against both Jews and Palestinian Arabs accused of “collaboration,” are committed by the secular Fatah, Arafat’s own group in the PLO. And despite the reputed rivalry between the PLO and Hamas, some of the operations are mounted by them as joint efforts. Arafat himself has repeatedly taken credit for every “execution” in the territories. (“I approve every file,” he once said, “if not before the execution, then after it.”)

Nevertheless, government spokesmen prefer to pretend that the killers are not operatives of the “moderate” Arafat, supporter of the peace talks, but “enemies of the peace process” such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and PLO radicals like the Habash, Hawatmeh, and Jibril groups. The not unreasonable assumption behind this charade is that the public might resent continued talks with proxies of the “mainstream” PLO in Washington while its gunmen are killing Israelis back home.

The separation between negotiators and killers was reinforced by Peres when he was asked why the subject of continued terrorism, both in Israel and the administered territories as well as on the Lebanon border, was not brought up at the peace talks. “Because the people who are doing the talking are not the people who are doing the shooting,” he answered.

Yet leaving aside whether it makes sense to negotiate with people who do not control those “who are doing the shooting,” the government is perfectly aware of Arafat’s connection with terrorist activity. In early July, Minister of Health Haim Ramon, a rising Labor-party star who often represents the government in Knesset debates, was reported to have contacted Arafat with the proposal of a trade: direct Israeli negotiations with the PLO in exchange for the cessation of terrorism. The answer was a flat no.

This points to another government-propagated myth. When asked about the absence of reciprocal gestures by the Palestinians, Peres said, “There is nothing the Palestinians could give us. We just have to decide what we want to give them.” In fact, however, a halt to terrorism is only one “confidence-building” gesture the Palestinians might make. Another would be to lift the boycott on Israeli goods in the territories and to appeal to the Arab states to terminate their economic boycott against Israel. But the Palestinians have been doing the exact opposite. When Kuwait announced that it was lifting the “secondary” boycott—the banning of foreign companies that do business with Israel from Arab markets—the Palestinian leadership yelled treason.

What the government seems unwilling to admit, perhaps even to itself, is that terrorist activity and guerrilla warfare are not “a campaign against the peace process.” Individual members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah may indeed believe that the peace process is a satanic Zionist-American plot, but the Arabs participating in the peace negotiations who use the services of these organizations—Syria and the PLO—are simply following a traditional totalitarian strategy of shooting while talking.

The immediate purpose of the shooting is to inflict as many Israeli casualties as possible. (“I want Israel to see a funeral a day on the TV screen,” Assad said during the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984.) The ultimate goal is to create internal pressure in Israel for a speedier peace settlement which would presumably stop the killing. A grieving Kiryat Shemona mother was shown on television after a Katyusha bombardment from Lebanon crying, “Enough, give them what they want, it’s time to make peace.” Similarly, clashes with the army are aimed at demoralizing Israel’s soldiers. If peace is really at hand, getting killed defending a piece of land slated to be relinquished makes little sense.



It is, of course, possible that branding the terrorists “enemies of the peace process” is the government’s way of deflecting criticism from its Left flank for its tough anti-terrorist measures. After all, Rabin sold his super-dovish Meretz coalition partners on the expulsion of 400 Hamas agitators by assuring them that it would strengthen the PLO’s position and help the peace process. And following this year’s Black March, in which terrorist killings—mostly inside the Green Line—occurred almost daily, the government imposed an open-ended closure on the administered territories with nary a peep from Meretz. (Had the Likud deprived 120,000 Arab workers of their livelihood for any length of time, the Left would have been in an uproar heard around the world.)

In the first weeks of the closure, terrorist attacks ceased almost completely. That Palestinian laborers were prevented from crossing the Green Line caused hardship and losses not only to them but to Israeli builders, industrialists, and farmers. Yet the public reacted with a sigh of relief. At which point the government began to view the closure as more than a security measure; now it was seen as a brilliant political move. The assumption was that the luxury of life free of terrorism would make a majority of Israelis long for the day when Israel would relinquish the territories.

What seems to have been overlooked in this picture was that only the Israeli army’s presence in the territories made the closure effective. Nor was this effectiveness a product of the separation in itself. Greatly assisted by the forced immobility of the population, the army could now make virtually unhindered house-to-house searches, discover terrorist cells, and round up known individual terrorists by the hundreds. The results were nothing short of spectacular. Most of the men wanted for killings of Israelis and “collaborators” were either apprehended or forced to flee the country (mainly to Egypt).

It was this blow to the terrorist organizations, rather than the closure—which was in effect suspended within weeks—that reduced terrorist activities to a minimum. But the government, preferring to attribute the relaxation to “the separation,” continued to perpetuate the myth that the closure was still in effect well after 60,000 registered Palestinian workers and 10,000 others had returned to work in Israel.

The government also seems to have overlooked something else. The brief initial separation of the Palestinians in the territories from Jerusalem made them realize how dependent they are on their leaders and their offices, institutions, newspapers, and information services, all of which are located in the eastern part of the city. Ultimately, the most dramatic accomplishment of the closure may have been the sharpening of the Palestinian demand for the inclusion of east Jerusalem in the autonomy plan and the future Palestinian state. “The Israelis and the Americans had better realize,” said the Palestinian negotiator Haider Abdel Shafi in mid-July, “that without an Arab Jerusalem there will be no peace.”

Shafi’s observation is probably correct. His assessment of the ten rounds of talks in the twenty months since Madrid as utterly devoid of results is also far more accurate than Peres’s glowing expressions of optimism. (Rabin has been more restrained.) Even the agreement with Jordan—“all we need is a pen to sign it with,” said Peres before the beginning of the tenth round—proved a chimera. The delegations had come together on a draft according to which Israel would relinquish areas on the Jordan river bank and south of the Dead Sea, in return for Jordan’s willingness to sign an agenda containing the words “it is anticipated that the process will culminate in a peace treaty.” But the draft, subject to approval by the respective governments, came back from Amman with “minor clarifications”: the Jerusalem issue must be resolved first; all the administered territories must be referred to as “occupied”; and the reference to a peace treaty at the end of the road must be eliminated. Here, too, the negotiations were back to square one.



The Labor government’s negotiating strategy is not easy to fathom. From the start, Rabin made one concession after another without a hint of reciprocation. Before the tenth round he declared—implicitly acknowledging what he had been doing up to that point—that the time of one-sided concessions was over. But he never said what he expected from the Arab side.

Concomitantly, the government has been portraying developments in rosy terms when in fact no progress has been registered. Even the one concession the Syrians had made to the Likud government—allowing Syrian Jews to emigrate—was withdrawn soon after Labor came to power. Nor did the hoped-for moderation of Palestinian demands—which was supposed to follow Israel’s agreement to include Jerusalemite Faisal Husseini in the Palestinian delegation—ever materialize. On the contrary, the question of Jerusalem, which must be postponed to a later stage if any progress is to be made on the interim arrangements, became the central issue.

Overly optimistic pronouncements are probably unavoidable during negotiations. They are often used to create momentum and place the ball in the adversary’s court. But under present circumstances it is difficult to see the purpose of a consistently Pollyannaish Israeli campaign. One possible explanation is that the government is deceiving itself about the willingness of the Arabs to make peace on terms that do not entail full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, as well as all other territories taken in the Six-Day War, and a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Another, less charitable, explanation is that the dovish faction led by Peres hopes to make the expectation of peace so overwhelming that prices which seemed prohibitive to the Israeli people only yesterday will seem worth paying tomorrow.

The Palestinians, like all the Arab regimes, enjoy an advantage democracies do not have. They can be intransigent and hard-nosed without fear of internal pressures for concessions and compromises. On the contrary, they must fear assassination if they do make concessions. Whatever some Israeli doves may imagine, it is a given that the Palestinians will not budge from the demand that autonomy—and later sovereignty—include half of Jerusalem. And it can be taken for granted that they will not agree to any substantial compromises on the territorial definition of autonomy: it will have to extend to all of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Nor will they give up on officially including the PLO in the talks.

Against these demands stands Yitzhak Rabin, who still insists on a few traditional Labor-party “no’s”: no discussion of the permanent solution before autonomy is established; no return to the 1949 armistice lines; no relinquishing of the Jordan valley and Gush Etzion settlements; no direct negotiations with the PLO; and no compromise on Jerusalem, which must stay undivided under Israeli sovereignty. But Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, who voices Peres’s opinions, has indicated a willingness to yield on all these points—with the possible exception of Jerusalem.

If Peres, Beilin, and the dovish faction in the government have their way, the gap between the Arabs’ minimum and Israel’s maximum will become so narrow as to be imperceptible. And what until recently was quite unthinkable—the establishment of a Palestinian state in the administered territories, the relinquishment of the Golan Heights, and perhaps even the division of Jerusalem into two capitals—may become official government policy.


1 Predictably, this made the Palestinians assume they could bring up the matter of Jerusalem immediately, rather than at the negotiations on the permanent solution. This in turn caused an impasse in the negotiations which prompted the Clinton administration to send a diplomatic team headed by Dennis Ross to Israel to reconcile PLO and Israeli positions.

2 See Yigal Carmon's letter on pp. 2-3 above.—Ed.

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