With the end of the current round in the Iraq crisis, attention again is returning to the difficulties of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That process was already in a serious state of decay even before the May 1996 election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the three years after the Oslo accords were signed, Israel experienced an unprecedented surge in urban terrorism that left more fatalities than the country had endured in the previous decade.
The original architects of Oslo had hoped that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would fight his armed militant opposition, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with the same fury as other Arab nationalist leaders had confronted theirs. But Hamas' military strength was allowed to grow in precisely those territories turned over by Israel, with devastating consequences. Even before Netanyahu's election, Israel's security chiefs asserted that Arafat was using Hamas as a negotiating tool: Arafat would fight terrorism if Israel made the concessions that he demanded.
Netanyahu saw this as intolerable. No negotiation can be successful if violence is reserved as a negotiating card.
After the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron, Netanyahu insisted that any further Israeli pullbacks would be tied to Palestinian compliance; Arafat agreed to this in a document, known as the "Note for the Record," signed by U.S. officials.
Israel executed all of its post-Hebron commitments that appeared in this document; the Palestinians failed to execute a single commitment, including all security undertakings. Bomb attacks continued during 1997 in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Arafat released hundreds of Hamas operatives from prison, many of whom were trained in the use of explosives.
International attention has been incorrectly diverted from these violations and directed to questions of Israeli redeployment and settlements. Oslo established that it was up to Israel alone to decide the size of three further redeployments in the West Bank during the interim period. Moreover, Oslo states nothing about how much land Israel is supposed to turn over in each of these redeployments. The real bilateral give and take over borders is supposed to take place in final status negotiations, not in the interim period.
Oslo did not rule out Israeli settlement growth or the growth of Palestinian villages.
What is needed to make the peace process work is to obtain Palestinian compliance with past commitments within the Oslo agreements and not seek new Israeli concessions that go beyond the Oslo process. Last August, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Major Gen. Moshe Yaalon, concluded that Arafat had not "conceded for a single day the use of terrorism and violence as a legitimate means for achieving Palestinian national aims."
Indeed, if Arafat calculates that he has made tangible gains, despite his noncompliance, then violence against Israel will continue to plague the Oslo process in the future.
The Iraq crisis will leave its impact on the parties as they reengage in negotiations. Voices in the Arab world argue that there is a double standard by which the U.N. deals more harshly regarding Security Council resolutions on Iraq than with resolutions on Israel. Of course, resolutions on Iraq deal with aggression and were applied after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and in the aftermath of its repeated use of chemical weapons. Israel's resolutions affect disputed territories taken in a defensive war in 1967 when Israel was encircled by massing armies.
Israel's confidence in the Palestinians has been shaken by repeated calls for an Iraqi missile attack on Tel Aviv at demonstrations organized by Arafat's own Fatah organization. Israelis were shocked to learn on March 6 that former terrorists have been recruited into the Palestinian security services and continued to assist in the most recent bombing attacks of last year in Jerusalem.
Peace is still possible. But the best way for the parties to break the impasse in the peace process is for them to proceed as quickly as possible to permanent status negotiations. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority is banking on a strategy of constant crisis, under the assumption that a sustained impasse will produce international pressure on Israel alone. It would be tragic if the U.N., the European Union or others allow themselves to be manipulated by this tactic instead of insisting that Arafat get back to the negotiating table. Israel is seeking what has been the long-term aim of every defense minister since 1967: defensible borders to its east. Israel is willing to take risks for peace to make it work; but it must be certain that a genuine belief in nonviolence and reconciliation exists on the other side.