Washington Is Best Chance for Peace in Middle East

Howard R. Teicher, author of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America's Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush" (Morrow), served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1982-87.

In the face of extremist violence and undisciplined international diplomacy following the Hebron massacre, President Bill Clinton should be commended for his low-key efforts to advance peace talks in the Middle East by resisting pressure to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians. His diplomatic strategy seeks to achieve two fundamental and related goals: to work closely with Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization to implement their declaration of principles at the earliest possible date, and to reinvigorate Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Israelis and Palestinians must regain their confidence in each other's desire to make peace in order for the U.S. strategy to succeed. To rebuild Israeli confidence, the PLO must live up to the commitments it made last September when it accepted the Declaration of Principles. It must exercise leadership in the occupied territories to reduce the violence against Israelis and other Palestinians. However much the PLO might now want to deviate from the agreed-on principles to gain political advantage, this would only undermine Yitzhak Rabin's negotiating mandate. External pressures on Jerusalem would force the prime minister, for domestic political reasons, to adopt a less conciliatory posture to avoid the appearance of weakness.

It is equally important to rebuild Palestinian confidence, as well as Yasser Arafat's political strength, by beginning Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. This will enhance security and transform the psychology of the Palestinian people, which will help propel the process forward.

Once these confidence-building steps are taken, U.S. diplomacy can steer Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward resolving those issues that threaten to block implementation of the principles by the April 13 deadline. Though it may prove difficult to achieve full implementation by this date, it is important that the negotiating be completed and the process well under way.

How two symbolic issues were being negotiated before the Hebron massacre gives a flavor of how formal talks could proceed once resumed.

Israelis worry that the uncontrolled movement of people and goods across the Allenby Bridge, which links the West Bank to Jordan, could threaten their security or economy. The Palestinians argue that some control over such movement would demonstrate they were taking charge of their lives. To resolve this issue, negotiators were close to agreeing on a formula that would place a modest Palestinian presence on this and other bridges and at border-crossings.

Another nearly resolved symbolic issue with practical implications is the size of the Jericho district the Palestinians would control. As a result of Clinton's prodding, both parties had moved toward a compromise that would leave more land under Palestinian control than Israel had hoped to cede. In the end, Rabin and Arafat will have to sign off on any agreement.

Security issues will remain the most vexing problem. Although agreement had been reached on the establishment of a 10,000-man Palestinian police force in Jericho and Gaza, its command structure, liaison arrangements and responsibility for protecting Israelis, as well as Palestinians, were still to be negotiated.

To restart formal negotiations, a change in Israeli policy on Hebron is crucial. A number of Jerusalem's proposals to restore civil order in the West Bank city are being discussed in Tunis and Cairo. Among them are the establishment of a municipal Palestinian police force and joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols.

But despite the best of intentions, outside intervention cannot resolve these issues. Although pressure on Israel to accept a Bosnia-like international force to protect Palestinians continues, Washington opposes the idea. Israel has agreed to a temporary presence of lightly armed international observers, which would enhance security and bolster the confidence of Palestinians. Talks are under way to determine who should be invited, how many, and what would be their mission.

More difficult for Rabin is what to do about the settlers in Hebron. Outlawing extremist settler groups was a necessary first step. But more decisive actions are required. Rabin has asserted that imposing a curfew on 110,000 Arabs to protect 450 Israelis has produced violence and civil unrest, not stability. Accordingly, the Israeli prime minister is trying to build domestic support for the more drastic measure of removing the settlers. A pledge from him to do so down the road may satisfy Arafat's need for an Israeli concession on this issue.

The second goal of U.S. diplomacy--promoting negotiations between Israel and its other Arab negotiating partners, most notably Syria--also must clear many diplomatic hurdles.

Following the Declaration of Principles, Rabin told Clinton that the Israeli public could not accommodate the psychological strains that parallel negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights would produce. But during his meeting with Clinton on March 15, Rabin signaled that he is now ready to engage in serious negotiations with the Syrians. U.S. diplomats have passed along Rabin's remarks to their Syrian counterparts.

During their recent meeting, Syrian President Hafez Assad went a long way toward persuading Clinton that his country is ready to negotiate and conclude a full treaty with Israel. But Assad's continuing acquiescence to Hezbollah's attacks against Israeli positions in southern Lebanon raises questions about Syria's true intentions. The United States is trying to persuade Damascus that its statements and behavior are key to creating a political atmosphere in Israel supportive of a trade of land for peace in the Golan Heights.

If implementation of the Declaration of Principles helps restore stability and calm in the occupied territories, Israel's propensity for risk-taking in negotiations with Syria will increase. Conversely, failure could easily lead to the fall of the Israeli government. In such circumstances, the only winners would be the opponents of peace.

To avoid this outcome, Washington must work to preserve the process that began in Madrid and lead the parties back to the negotiating table. This policy, which Clinton is pursuing, offers the best hope for achieving a lasting resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.*

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