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Momentum Favors Mideast Peace : Despite Outbursts, Arab-Israeli Dialogue Is Inevitable

<i> Barry Rubin, a senior research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author of "The PLO's New Policy" (Washington Institute) and "Istanbul Intrigues" (McGraw-Hill). </i>

A Palestinian Islamic terrorist’s killing of 14 people on an Israeli bus last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s harder political line and the Labor Party’s threat to withdraw from the national unity government seem to have undermined the Arab-Israeli peace process. In fact, the prospects for negotiation are developing more durably--if still slowly--than outsiders, particularly Americans, imagine.

Internal factors are forcing both Israelis and Palestinians to seek a diplomatic resolution. These factors will intensify over time and are far stronger in motivating the sides than any leverage from the United States or other outside powers.

Israelis increasingly recognize that there is no morally acceptable or politically feasible way to stop the Palestinian uprising. The economic costs, the need to free the army from police duty in the territories and the extended reserve duty there by most Israeli men are among the incentives for finding a compromise solution.

On the Palestinian side, the uprising destroyed the existing order but is incapable of ending the occupation. Its leaders understand that Israel will neither collapse nor retreat. Living standards have fallen sharply; the middle class’ savings are almost exhausted. Arab countries have given relatively little support or money; funds are short. Factional bickering, sometimes erupting in murder, is on the rise.

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The Israeli government sought to deal with the impasse by proposing elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians chosen would negotiate with Israel over an interim, 5-year stage of autonomy. During this period, the two sides also would negotiate toward a final political settlement. The ultimate outcome would be left open, but, obviously, wouldhave to be mutually agreeable.

After forcefully rejecting the plan, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Tunis began to back away from such a hard line. The PLO even has secretly proposed to choose Palestinians, inside and outside the territories, to work with Israel on the format for elections.

There were a number of reasons for this policy change. The fact that Israel controls the territories, and is willing to go on doing so until or unless a politically acceptable alternative is reached, puts the Palestinians on the defensive. Given U.S. support for Israel’s election plan, the PLO’s inability to make a counteroffer would leave it out in the cold. Pressure from many West Bank leaders to achieve some material gain also pushed Arafat to take some diplomatic steps as the only way of ending the occupation.

The next step will be an American response, perhaps suggesting that the PLO could propose names of candidates to the United States which would submit them to Israel. These people would have to live in the territories and not be PLO officials (no major problem since few residents hold such posts in the organization). In this context, the PLO could claim to be directly involved in the process while Israel could deny it.

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Other problems could be dealt with in these preliminary talks. If politicians wanted to do so, even some of the seemingly most intransigent problems might be resolved. Residents of East Jerusalem, who Shamir has pledged to keep from participating in the elections, might vote separately on a different date, as absentees or under certain other conditions.

A second Israeli condition, that violence must end before elections, might be met by a truce. Israeli patrols could be reduced. Palestinians would stop rock-throwing riots and attacks on soldiers. Instead, they might hold peaceful marches as part of an election campaign. Again, both sides could claim victory.

Shamir met pressure from rivals in his party who oppose elections by repeating his earlier statements that he would not negotiate with the PLO, accept a Palestinian state or give up land to “foreign sovereignty.” This apparently harder line threatens to block any prospect that Palestinians will accept elections. It has already caused the Labor Party leadership to consider dropping out of the coalition government.

Shamir and the Likud Party believe, given the understandable popular suspicion of the PLO, that voters will reward tough positions and punish flexible ones. The PLO itself has made it much harder to overcome these doubts. Its leaders sometimes talk of real peace on the basis of a two-state solution but equally advocate a two-stage process for destroying Israel. Some PLO groups continue to stage terrorist attacks without criticism from Arafat. Bassam abu Sharif, Arafat’s spokesman and most outspoken moderate, defended the bus attack as an understandable, nonterrorist response to Israeli actions. Israeli doves have been dismayed and politically weakened by this behavior.

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One thing is clear: Only the PLO and Palestinians can persuade Israelis that there is a diplomatic alternative in which security can be achieved by trading territory for peace and mutual recognition. A prominent Israeli conservative politician put it this way: “There must be a majority in Parliament for any agreement, even if I vote against it.”


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