During his visit to Washington next week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will offer an array of tentative, mostly old ideas to open Mideast peace talks with an eye to reversing American moves perceived as boxing Israel into talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, top associates of the Israeli leader say.
Shamir and his aides are playing down the prospect that he will propose dramatic initiatives when he speaks to President Bush. Israeli officials who once promised that Shamir would deliver a bold new peace plan are now rejecting the view that the meeting is pivotal.
Instead, they describe the visit as a “consultation” and shy away from giving the impression that the Bush Administration, by holding separate talks with the PLO, is in fact mediating between Israel and its longtime enemy.
Shamir’s inner circle is upset by the persistence shown by U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III not only in keeping up contacts with the PLO but in suggesting that, some day, Israel itself may have to negotiate with the group.
Members of Shamir’s Likud Party call Baker’s approach the “velvet hammer” because at the same time that he pledges devotion to Israel, he tries to drive home policies that Shamir opposes.
“The United States is weaving iron chains around us. This is not good,” Yosef Ben-Aharon, Shamir’s Cabinet secretary, said of Baker’s moves. “If we say that Israel cannot talk to the PLO and the United States keeps talking to them, this applies pressure on us. If this is the course that is going to be followed, we are headed for a full-dress, head-on collision with the United States.
“It was a big blunder to open talks with the PLO.”
Arafat Renounced Terrorism
Washington began talks with the PLO during the final weeks of the Reagan Administration, after the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, publicly renounced the use of terrorism and acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Baker maintained the contact, despite Israel’s objection that talks with the PLO are tantamount to acceptance of the group’s demand for an independent Palestinian state.
But the American-PLO contact is not the only move that has upset the Shamir government. Baker also has called for Shamir to show “new dynamism” and suggested that Israel take one or more steps to ease tensions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Suggestions published so far include the release of Palestinians who are in jail without trial, the reopening of Arab schools and the withdrawal of troops from cities and towns in the occupied land.
On Thursday, a senior Israeli official sharply turned down such calls: “The Americans don’t need our gestures. They know we want peace.”
Shamir also rejects two other basics of American policy: that Israel should prepare to give up occupied land for peace and should stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
“In my opinion, the settlements have nothing to do with the peace process,” the senior official said. Israel has built 137 settlements since occupying the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War. About 70,000 Israelis live in the enclaves among 1.7 million Arabs.
As for land-for-peace, Shamir recently told Israel Television: “I do not believe that a formula of this type must be sought.”
Although Shamir is keeping his exact plans for Washington quiet--he has refused to have an open discussion in his Cabinet about his present policy--he is expected to bring “ideas” that turn on ways to get talks off the ground without the PLO, his associates say.
Variation of Camp David
The ideas all turn on some variation of the 1978 Camp David accords which call for a period of autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza before a permanent peace solution is worked out.
As a start, Shamir hopes to organize a meeting among Israel, Egypt and the United States, in an echo of Camp David. The three countries would organize some way of finding Palestinian “interlocutors” to carry on further talks.
Shamir would prefer such an appointed Palestinian delegation so that Israel would have a veto, senior officials say. If that idea falls flat--and it has already been rejected by Egypt as well as any recognized Palestinian leader inside or outside of the West Bank and Gaza--Shamir is also willing to consider some kind of election.
“It’s an acceptable principle to us,” a senior official said.
One idea being floated is a vote for mayors of cities and towns as a means of getting a Palestinian representation, senior officials say; Shamir is said to be “open” to letting known PLO sympathizers join in, although he has stopped short of declaring himself openly on this point.
Municipal elections exclude large rural areas, raising the question of whether the vote is meant to find negotiators, or merely administrators to take office when autonomy is in place.
In any case, talks with Palestinians, elected or otherwise, would lead to the establishment of autonomous areas, with the final status left for talks to take place within five years, Shamir says.
Shamir insists that Israel must maintain control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip when a permanent solution is worked out.
The prime minister’s unwavering demand to keep all the land puts him not only at loggerheads with American policy, but with members of his own government, which is an uneasy coalition led by Shamir’s Likud Party, with the more dovish Labor Party as a junior partner.
Labor favors the formula of giving up land for peace, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the party’s No. 2 official, has outlined his own plan that would permit area-wide elections on the West Bank and Gaza to form a Palestinian peace delegation.
Victory by PLO sympathizers would be tolerated, Rabin has said. Land turned loose at the close of talks would be ceded to neighboring Jordan.
Rabin opposes an independent Palestinian state or direct talks with the PLO.
Israeli observers view Shamir’s trip as a holding action designed to buy time until either the U.S. dialogue with the PLO runs out of steam or the Arab uprising on the West Bank and Gaza fades. Both would reduce pressure on Israel.
“Shamir will try to avoid confrontation with Washington. As long as he feels that relations with the United States are not hurt badly, he will stand fast. Shamir believes time is on his side,” said Arye Naor, now Cabinet secretary and a former aide to Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Added Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist and former Foreign Ministry official: “Shamir has two contradictory items on his Washington agenda--to stick to his old ideas and avoid a clash with Washington. To square all this, he has to use new rhetoric. He must talk the language of elections and say something like ‘Everything is up for grabs.’
“That way, at least, he can win time. If Bush doesn’t like what he says, Shamir can promise to come back with something else.”
These observers view Baker’s step-by-step approach as having a wearing, if not immediate effect on the status quo in Israel.
“The United States has a strong impact on the debate within Israel,” Avineri commented, noting that the U.S. decision to talk with the PLO encouraged Israeli doves and even some members of the Likud Party to consider such an eventuality.
Added Naor: “In a sense, Baker and Bush must go over Shamir’s head and try to convince Israeli public opinion that in the long term, giving up something is in Israel’s interest.”
Direct U.S. pressure is unwise, the experts concur. Shamir, they point out, is a product of tragedies inflicted on Jews before and during World War II; he is already prone to distrust the outside world.
“For Shamir, standing up to pressure is not a catastrophe. It’s what he expects. It’s his fate and the fate of the Jewish people,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at Hebrew University. “Baker would do well to present himself as a victim of public opinion that is beginning to look unfavorably on Israel. Let Shamir draw his own conclusions.”
Open threats to cut aid may not be realistic, the experts note. Much of the economic aid goes to paying off Israel’s foreign debt, much of it to American banks. Military aid is seen in Washington as benefiting both sides and is probably immune from significant cutbacks.
“If America had a credible arsenal of threats, it would have used them long ago,” said Avineri.
THE MIDDLE EAST AGENDA
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, due in Washington on Monday, has called the Camp David autonomy formula outdated, considers U.S. opening dialogue with PLO a triumph of Egypt’s own diplomacy.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, due in Washington on Thursday, is expected to offer an array of tentative, mostly old ideas to open Middle East talks, with an eye to reversing recent U.S. moves.
King Hussein of Jordan, due in Washington on April 19, could still be a pivotal figure in any Middle East talks, especially if the “Jordanian option” of a joint Jordan-Palestinian delegation should be revived.