It May Be Back to Square One

Shibley Telhami is associate professor of government and director of the Near Eastern Studies Program at Cornell University

When President Bill Clinton's new national-security team settles in, they will face a crisis in the Arab-Israeli negotiations unlike any since the Palestinian-Israeli agreements were signed in 1993. The aura of an "irreversible" Arab-Israeli reconciliation, which had encouraged regional leaders to compete for peace, has been replaced by a psychology of inevitable conflict. It will take much more than skillful crisis management to overcome this fundamental shift in climate.

The central problem is not a failure to implement previous agreements on Israeli withdrawal from Hebron nor the newly announced Israeli plans to bolster settlements on the West Bank, though both obstacles must be overcome before any progress can be made. Despite the massacre of Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque and suicide bombings in Israeli cities, the peace process, though wounded, survived. The healing power of the negotiations was strong enough to sustain the Israelis' and Arabs' belief that past pain would finally give way to relief.

For the Palestinians, this hope did not spring from any naive faith that the Labor government, with which they negotiated an agreement, was benign in its objectives or tactics. Even before the election of Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime ministership last May, the peace process was marred by painful delays, settlement building, harsh tactics, mutual charges of violations and expectations that the forthcoming talks over the shape of the final agreement would be long and tough. But the Palestinians retained faith in one thing: the Oslo accords--and Israel's Labor leaders--recognized them as a "people" and thus their right to some form of self-determination. In informal discussions between Israelis and Palestinians, the most likely scenario was a partly demilitarized Palestinian state consistent with Israeli security needs.

The Oslo accords also seemed to promise some urgently needed economic relief, but the situation on the West Bank has gone from bad to worse. In three years, the economic output there has declined 30%; unemployment in Gaza is nearly 60%. Palestinian mobility from city to city remains highly restricted. Only hope for eventual peace persuaded most Palestinians to be patient. That outlook has all but vanished today.

The hope for an enduring peace is not much stronger in Israel. Yitzhak Rabin's vision of a world no longer arrayed against Israel and of a peace that would bring economic prosperity to Israeli and Arab alike has retreated in the face of suicidal bombings, a calamitous opening of a tunnel beneath a Muslim shrine and Netanyahu's intransigent rhetoric. The old psychology of fear, of "us versus them," is back.

The net result has been the near-reversal of the main success of the administration's Middle East policy: persuading moderate Arabs and Israelis that their historic conflict had been transformed into one between supporters and opponents of peace, and that moderates on both sides had more in common with each other than with their opponents at home.

The rise of Netanyahu--his apparent opposition to territorial compromise, his settlement policies--has had its own resonance in the Arab world, reviving old Arab pathologies that Israel is the source of all ills in the region and that there is a conspiracy behind everything, from the survival of Saddam Hussein to the troubles in Northern Iraq. Newspapers across the region are full of such stories. Leaders in the Gulf Arab states openly express their fears of a peace process going awry, speak again of justice for the Palestinians as a key issue and worry about what they see as an Israeli drive to divide Arab.

This shift in Arab sentiment should not be surprising. The very success of the idea of a "new Middle East" had led some to believe that the Palestinian issue was dead in the Arab world. Indeed, Arab states in the Gulf and in North Africa behaved as if the Palestinian issue was no longer their issue, because they assumed that peace between Israel and Palestinians was a foregone conclusion. They can no longer make such an assumption. How can one expect the Arabs of Arabia to be unaffected by the pain that the Arabs of Palestine endure any more than Jews in the United States can remain indifferent to the pain of Jews in Israel?

Worsening matters is the diminishing chance of a Syrian-Israeli agreement. The previous Israeli government succeeded in talking both to Syria and the Palestinians, which enabled it to overcome a stalemate on one front by moving on another. By contrast, the gap between the positions of Syria and the current Israeli government are so wide that no agreement is likely in the foreseeable future, especially since the status quo is relatively comfortable for both. The biggest risk here is an unintended escalation in Lebanon. Clinton's new foreign-policy team would be wise to focus on conflict management, instead of conflict resolution, in the Syrian-Israeli relationship.

The story is different when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose resolution remains a necessary condition for broader Arab-Israeli peace. The status quo is untenable here. Given the harsh economic and political realities on the ground, Palestinian perceptions that Netanyahu is merely buying time for eventual annexation of the West Bank could lead to an explosion. Yasser Arafat's security forces have become quite effective, but it is doubtful they would be more effective than the Israeli Army had been if there are no signs of resolution. The results could be disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In the short term, securing Israeli withdrawal from Hebron and curtailing settlement-building on the West Bank must be the administration's top Middle East priorities. But, given the fundamental shift in the region, more will be required than the incremental policies of the last three years. Since Netanyahu's election, supporters of peace have been fortunate in that major terrorist incidents, on both sides, have not occurred--a situation that cannot be taken for granted. When Arab or Jewish terrorists strike next, the new climate of fear and conflict will place the peace gains of the last few years in jeopardy.

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