Posted on May 03, 1993 in Washington Watch

Israel’s illegal expulsion of 400 Palestinians to Lebanon may have been a turning-point in the search for a comprehensive Middle East peace—but not for the reasons claimed by Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in December of 1992.

Back then Israel felt threatened by violence which it asserted was being orchestrated by Hamas activists in the Occupied Territories. Rabin claimed that, in an effort to both stop the violence and to free the Palestinian negotiators from the threat of Hamas “the opponents of peace”, it was necessary to expel 400 arbitrarily chosen Palestinians without any due process of law.

The results were exactly the opposite of what Rabin had calculated. The peace talks, for example, were already in danger of collapse because of a stalemate when the expulsions shocked and outraged the Palestinian community.

Although world opinion galvanized around Israel’s illegal act—and even the U.S. voted to condemn Israel in the Security Council—the Palestinian negotiators, instead of having their hand strengthened, were weakened by Israel’s blatant disregard for both human rights and the peace process. As a result, they announced an indefinite suspension of the peace talks and made it clear that, pending a reversal of the expulsions, they could not return to the talks over the bodies of their constituents.

In addition, the expulsions, far from stopping violence, contributed to a tremendous surge of violence both in the Territories and in Israel itself. After months of bloodshed, a politically vulnerable Rabin felt forced to increase repression in the Occupied Territories, and then to completely close the occupied West Bank and Gaza off from Israel.

In ways wholly unintended by Rabin, the illegal act of the expulsions has set off a chain of events that may be sowing in their wake the seeds of a peace settlement. In addition to Rabin’s folly, two other key ingredients have created this new and somewhat more positive set of circumstances: the steadfast and principled negotiating posture of the Palestinian negotiating team and the PLO, and the persistence and quiet diplomacy of the U.S. and some of its key Arab allies.

While some in the Arab world still do not see the small but significant victories that have been snatched from the tragic expulsions, and while the Palestinian negotiators cannot themselves claim these victories (because they are still in the midst of difficult negotiations and should not weaken their demands), it is important that those of us who support the Palestinians recognize their accomplishments. The little victories they are winning now indicate the correctness of their path and set the stage for larger victories.

1) On the Question of the Expulsions

Because the Palestinians held firm and because the entire peace process was jeopardized, the U.S. went to work on resolving the matter. Recognizing the limits created by both internal Israeli and U.S. politics, the compromise achieved was not a complete victory. Nevertheless, it is vital to recognize that this will be the first time that any UN Security Council resolution concerning expulsions will be implemented. The implementation may not be immediate—but it will be complete—and as a result of Egyptian mediation it may even be speeded up. This is only a partial victory, but a victory nonetheless.

The Palestinian negotiators, because they were not fully satisfied by the compromise, were able to creatively use the incomplete nature of the compromise to win further concessions from both the U.S. and Israel. In addition to the trauma that the expulsions caused in Palestinian society, and in the extent to which they showed the vulnerability of the Palestinian negotiators to arbitrary Israeli actions, they have also introduced a new factor into the peace process.

For years I have argued with officials of several U.S. Administrations that, while the Palestinians and the Arabs in general have learned to be aware of the dynamics of U.S. and Israeli domestic policy debates, there has been no corresponding awareness of or sensitivity to Palestinian public opinion in the United States or Israel. As a result, Palestinians have historically been treated as a static component in the Israeli-Palestinian political equation. It was understood that Palestinian actions affected the Israeli side of the equation, but there was no corresponding recognition of the fact that Israeli and U.S. actions affect the Palestinians.

The expulsions brought the importance and the complexity of Palestinian opinion and the internal pressures of the Palestinian domestic debate to the forefront of Western public awareness. The continual pressure exerted by the Palestinian negotiators and the U.S. Administration brought this hitherto ignored fact home—and this may have been one of the subtlest but most important outcomes of the entire crisis.

A consequence of this new awareness has been the realization that Palestinians, like Israelis, are a society living under stress and, therefore, require coddling, concessions, compromise—and even occasional pandering—if peace is to be achieved.

A further result of this new awareness, given the fact that Secretary of State Christopher could not make further progress on the expulsion issue (although, as I have stated, an incomplete but nonetheless real victory is still in the making in that front), other sweeteners had to be added and were added in order to insure Palestinian participation in the resumed talks.

2) Further Sweeteners Added to the Peace Talks

· The first announced “sweetener” was the addition of Faisal Husseini as head of the negotiating team. While not resulting in Israeli recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, the move has ended Israel’s veto over Palestinians from East Jerusalem participating in the peace talks, and it opens the door to clear recognition that Palestinians from Jerusalem are part of the Palestinian body politic.

Moreover, the Israeli decision to lift the law banning contact with the PLO, and Israel’s agreement to accept the participation of Diaspora Palestinians in the bi-lateral negotiations’ working groups, gives additional though still indirect recognition of the Palestinian assertion that their national community is indivisible and transcends what Israel has termed “the Arab inhabitants of the administered territories.” Finally, it also tacitly recognizes that the Palestinians, and no other party, determines the boundaries of the Palestinian community.

· Human rights issues are now clearly recognized as a central component in the negotiations.

During the previous eight rounds the U.S. was not supportive of Palestinian attempts to introduce human rights issues into the talks. Human rights were held to be secondary or even disruptive issues that would be resolved at the completion of the talks. One Administration official even termed Palestinian use of human rights concerns as “grandstanding” for headlines and not a serious negotiating issue.

At his March 31st White House briefing of Arab American leaders, Secretary of State Christopher declared that henceforth human rights would be at the “center of the negotiating process” and in the April 27th press conference, at which he announced the resumption of the talks, the Secretary of State focused a considerable portion of his opening remarks on the “human rights…condition Palestinians face in the West Bank and Gaza.”

In practical terms, the Palestinians sought and the Administration procured from Israel some immediate gestures. For example, 5,000 Palestinians who had been separated from their families in the occupied territories will be permitted to stay on after the end of the summer. In the past, Israel had issued only temporary permits for family reunification, but will make the reunification of many families permanent this year. Although such a move falls short of being complete, and is in fact an unofficial (yet binding) policy, it is important in human rights terms, and is not without a small amount of political value.

Perhaps the most significant human rights move came with Israel’s decision to allow the return of 30 major Palestinian national leaders from exile—most of whom were expelled in the first ten years of the occupation. In many cases these were highly visible leaders whose expulsion had created a leadership vacuum that proved difficult to fill. That their return has the added benefit of strengthening the hand of the negotiating team is only fair—since these leaders never should have been expelled in the first place.

· In an effort to resume its role as an “even-handed honest broker”, the Clinton Administration has repeatedly stated its commitment to the Madrid formula during the past month. It is rather surprising that most of the Arab press has failed to note the significance of these statements—most especially when pro-Israel journalists have made a point of expressing doubts about such statements.

After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Clinton stated, “Our challenge is now to broaden the circle of peace, recognizing the principles that underlie the peace process: territory for peace, realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, security for all parties, and full and real peace.” On two separate occasions following this Secretary Christopher reiterated the same formula, slightly changing it to read “land for peace” instead of “territories for peace.” The term “land for peace” is especially galling to the Israelis and has not been used since Bush first uttered it in 1991.

(In an effort not to infuriate former Israeli Prime Minister Shamir, it will be recalled that Bush did not use the phrase in his speech at Madrid. And Clinton has not spoken this formula since becoming President—despite Arab American urgings to do so.)

In fact, for all the negative press in the Arab world following Clinton’s meeting with Rabin, it is surprising that there has been so little response to the extraordinarily positive meetings and statements that followed the Clinton-Mubarak meetings and the speeches of Secretary Christopher on April 22 and 23. Both of Christopher’s speeches qualify as the most balanced statements by a Secretary of State—and before an Arab American audience (his second in three weeks and the first speeches ever given by a Secretary of State to any Arab American group)!

· There is even a silver lining to the Israeli decision to close off the Occupied territories. While it has produced real economic hardships for the Palestinians, it has reestablished most of the green line (with the exception of East Jerusalem)—a line which previous Israeli governments had worked so hard to erase and which many negative analyses in the Arab world were claiming might never be drawn again. As if to prepare for the inevitable, Rabin has even come to term the one side of the green line “sovereign Israel,” to be distinguished from the “occupied territories.”

To provide some short-term assistance to the Palestinian lands the U.S. has, it appears, pledged to assemble $1.25 billion in economic assistance, including an immediate $24 million in direct U.S. aid. That would be the largest amount of U.S. assistance ever granted to the Palestinians, though it still pales in comparison with U.S. aid to Israel. The U.S. reportedly also has secured Saudi Arabian commitments to increase economic assistance to the Occupied Territories.

***

As the ninth round of negotiations takes form here in Washington, there is another significant difference that has been recognized by all parties. There is an undercurrent of concern that this may be the last chance for peace for the foreseeable future.

It is this common concern that has gelled the process and moved all of the parties forward. This fact has contributed to exposing the enormity of Rabin’s blunder, solidified both Palestinian resolve and their flexibility to make the process work, and has inspired the urgent and determined U.S. diplomacy.

Victory has never been won in a day—but it can be won in small steps, incremental little victories that could pave the way for lasting peace in which the Palestinian national right to self-determination would be implemented. Enormous hurdles remain, including: the issue of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians in the city; Israel’s continued violence against Palestinians; and resolution of the issue of Israel’s illegal settlements and land confiscations.

In many ways, therefore, the process is just starting—but we can already see the shape of a resolution beginning to emerge. Formal statements indicate that no one wants this round to fail. If actions support these statements, the ninth round could in many ways be the first round of real talks—and it will be recorded that the credit for its success lies in Rabin’s blunder, Palestinian resolve, and U.S. diplomacy.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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