Posted on February 14, 1994 in Washington Watch

Don’t be fooled by the applause that accompanied the `Arafat-Peres signing of a partial agreement in Cairo last week. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in trouble and may flounder without U.S. leadership.

The September 13th signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) between the PLO and Israel did represent an historic breakthrough. While critics cited ambiguities in the accords, the important fact was that through the DoP the Israelis and Palestinians recognized each other, setting the stage for meaningful negotiations to end their generations-old conflict.

Five months later, this negotiating process has yet to produce any concrete steps toward disengagement and peace. This inability to move forward is a function of problems inherent in the negotiating partners themselves: the weakness of both the Labor government of Israel and the PLO, and the asymmetry in the power relationship between them.

Simply put, Israel holds all the cards: it controls all of the Palestinian territory and all aspects of daily life within it. As a result, the negotiating process has been reduced to Palestinian reactions to Israeli positions, all of which are presented as `firm and non-negotiable.’ The only options available to the Palestinian negotiators are saying “No” and threatening to abort the process, or attempting to whittle away at the “firm” Israeli positions in an attempt to win some face-saving gestures.

Israeli Foreign Minister Peres said as much in a February 11 interview when he observed, “These negotiations are with ourselves. The Palestinians don’t have so much to give us.”

So the fate of the process rests in Israeli goodwill and the willingness of the Labor government to respect Palestinian rights and dignity, and to give the Palestinians enough concessions to maintain the integrity of the negotiations.

This leads to the second difficulty facing the peace process, which is the fragile hold Rabin and `Arafat each believe they have over their respective constituencies. While both leaders are invested in the process and publicly recognize the need to support each other’s position, the PLO – as Peres accurately expressed it – doesn’t have so much to give; and Rabin’s government seems to be afraid of giving more than it has already.

The product of this rather weak recipe has been an unpalatable stew.

In the days following the Cairo signing the Israeli press glowed with approval, noting that Israel got everything it wanted – control of all security arrangements – while making few and primarily symbolic concessions. The Arab and Palestinian press simultaneously chafed at the insult of what were described as the “humiliating agreements.”

Palestinian and Israeli extremists sense this weakness, and have used violence and harsh rhetoric to further constrain their leaders by exacerbating tensions and preying on fears.

If left alone under this scenario, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators cannot successfully complete an agreement which meets both parties’ minimal needs. Outside assistance, and specifically U.S. leadership, will be required to give each side the strength and support it needs to move forward.

While the U.S. has until now refused to become engaged in the negotiating process and will not place pressures on Israel to make concessions, there are still important actions the U.S. could take to greatly assist the parties and make the process work. Two such steps, outside of the negotiating process, come immediately to mind.

First, all parties have agreed that the question of Jerusalem will be left for final stage negotiations, and under the Madrid rules all parties agreed not to take unilateral steps to alter conditions on the ground during the negotiating process. Nevertheless, Israel fully acknowledges that it is constructing 15,000 new housing units (in addition to the 13,500 units begun by the Likud government which it is also completing) in what it describes as Greater Jerusalem – an expanded area stretching at some points more than 6 miles from the historic city.

This building, coupled with the “security roads” and tunnels that Israel is constructing to connect settlements with each other and Jerusalem, is cutting the West Bank into several separate cantons, and serves as a daily reminder to the Palestinians of their lack of control over their daily lives and sharpens their fear of never gaining any semblance of control over their territory.

A firm and public U.S. position against the construction within the occupied territories would enhance the integrity of the process and give the powerless Palestinians some sense of support in their quest for a just and lasting agreement.

Second, a continuing concern of the Palestinians has been their inability to gain direct access to foreign markets during the 27 years of Israeli occupation. A single U.S. announcement that the terms of the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement would apply to Palestinian products exported from the autonomous regions would go a long way toward assuring Palestinians that they can benefit economically from peace.

There is an irony in the current process: in war the victor-vanquished equation applies, but in peace talks it is necessary that both parties emerge strengthened. As the Cairo accords make quite clear, negotiations within the context of the current Israeli-Palestinian relationship and the lack of outside support have served to enhance Israeli strength while further eroding the Palestinian position. But a weakened Palestinian authority will not and cannot produce peace.

Since both leaderships feel compelled to push the process forward, it may be possible for Israel to press the Palestinians to agree to their terms for autonomy and strip the Palestinians of even the trappings of sovereignty and dignity. But such an accord would be impossible for the PLO to sell to its already restless and angry constituency. In fact, such an agreement could only further weaken the PLO’s position in the territories, and is a recipe for continued conflict.

Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid recognized this point when he suggested that forcing too many concessions from the Palestinians would weaken their ability to rally support for the negotiating process: “I think when we are talking about security matters, we have to twist the arms of our dialogue partners. But when we twist the arms, we have to be careful not to break them.”

While Rabin may feel unable to offer more to the Palestinians, the U.S. can, without directly entering the negotiations, take steps that will open up the current impasse. It is a role we cannot afford not to play – it will help not only the Palestinians but the Israelis and the peace process itself.

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