Posted on June 13, 1993 in Washington Watch

With the tenth session of Middle East peace talks now beginning, hopes are not as high as they were 20 months ago after the Madrid Conference, but nor are they as low as they were six months ago after Israel’s expulsion of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon.

A review of developments leading up to this tenth session establishes two contradictory trends. On the one hand, there have been real changes in the relationships between the parties and indications of progress on some fronts, while on the other hand, there remain troubling signs of stagnation and unresolved issues not being addressed by the various parties to the talks.

The Ninth Round

Quiet a bit of finesse was needed to reconvene the ninth round in May. As the session began, the U.S. had felt that real progress was about to be made. And in fact, in the first weeks of the negotiations, working groups on the Israeli-Palestinian track were showing signs of movement. But the process then ground to a halt.

Post-mortems of the ninth round from all sides are roughly in agreement about the proximate cause of the deadlock: the Palestinians pulled back, cut the size of their delegation and refused to participate in a U.S.-sponsored three-way U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian session.

There were several reasons which account for this collapse: U.S. assurances that funds would be forthcoming to both the PLO and the Occupied Territories didn’t materialize; Palestinian objection to the procedure used by the U.S. to produce a proposed joint Palestinian-Israeli draft working paper (the Israelis were consulted in the process but the Palestinians were presented with a fait accompli); and Israel’s intensification of human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.

In fact, in terms of human rights human rights side, May was an exceptionally cruel month for the Palestinians: 39 were killed (including 13 children) and 1,200 were wounded, and Israel’s closure of the territories—including cutting off East Jerusalem—produced significant economic and social hardships for the Palestinians. While some attempted to portray the closure as a positive reestablishment of the Green Line, Hanan Ashrawi more pointedly describes it as mass collective punishment. She terms the now-closed territories a prison without resources or access to its economic, religious and cultural center: Jerusalem.

Despite these hardships and the eventual breakdown of the talks, progress was made in the period immediately before and during the ninth session, with regard to the U.S. role in the process and the process itself. The U.S. returned to its pre-Madrid activist role as it worked to achieve some Israeli compromises on human rights issues, sought funds for Palestinians in the territories, and wrested some agreements from the Israelis on procedural issues: the inclusion of Jerusalem leader Faisal Husseini as head of the Palestinian delegation and the establishment of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian working groups on human rights and powers of the interim self-government.

This engaged U.S. role continued during the negotiations. For the first time since the beginning of the Madrid process, the U.S. tabled a draft proposal seeking to define points of agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although the Palestinians justifiably criticized the procedure used to create the draft and some of its language, it is important to recognize that in the very act of presenting a draft the U.S. has become engaged in the process as called for by the various Arab delegations.

A New Dynamic Between the Rounds

A new dynamic emerged from the ninth round that continued throughout the month between the ninth and tenth negotiating sessions. For the first time since the convening of the Madrid Conference, active diplomacy continued on all fronts independent of the talks themselves. In some instances it was direct diplomacy between the parties, and in other cases it was indirect discussion through intermediaries. In still others the Israelis and the Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians engaged in a discussion through the media. The ideas presented were often positive and constructive, and this, too, was new.

The net effect of this activity was to create at least the impression that each party wanted peace and was seeking ways to make acceptable proposals for peace. So whatever disappointments came in the ninth round, the flurry of public and private diplomacy and public debate seemed to indicate a possibly irreversible dynamic toward peace.

On the Syrian-Israeli front, the U.S. apparently took a leading role, letting it be known in Israel that it would provide security guarantees on the Golan. This was received favorably by some in the Israeli press, and hotly contested by others. Syrian Vice President Khaddam responded quite positively to this U.S. overture. There have also been reports of a Clinton letter to President Assad asking for clarification of the Syrian definition of peace—and reports that Assad has responded.

Secretary of State Christopher and Assistant Secretary of State Djerejian will be at the United Nations Human Rights meeting in Vienna this week and will conduct discussions with Israeli Foreign Minister Peres, Syrian Foreign Minister Sharaa and Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa. All of this is an effort to lay a supportive track back to the tenth round of talks in Washington.

There didn’t seem to be significant activity on the Lebanese-Israeli track—in part because during the ninth round important progress was made as Israel agreed to accept UN Security Council Resolution 425 as the basis of the agenda. This was an important preparatory step for further Lebanese-Israeli negotiations.

There has been a spate of press coverage of the Jordanian-Israeli track, beginning with Shimon Peres’ comments in Israel that there was a near agreement between Israel and Jordan on an agenda and, as Peres put it, “all that was needed was a signature.” This, of course, was something of an overstatement, since Jordan will not come to an agreement with Israel without movement on the Palestinian-Israeli track—bit it did make it clear that Israel wants to convey the sense that there is movement toward peace. This effort was reinforced by the comments of Jordanian Prime Minister Abdessalam al-Majali, who responded optimistically to a question by stating that a peace agreement was possible in 1993.

Even on the most difficult track, the Israeli-Palestinian track, the past few weeks have been full of overtures, hints of progress and reports of direct and indirect contacts between the parties.

For its part, the U.S. has continued to press hard to secure financial support for the Palestinians. While efforts have not borne fruit to date, they continue to make a case to several Arab allies to resume the flow of funds to the PLO and the Occupied Territories. The U.S. case is simple and clear: small sums now will help to restore confidence in the peace process in the Occupied Territories, and will strengthen the hand of Palestinians who want to make peace. On the other hand, failure to support these Palestinians now will only play into the hands of extremists who oppose the PLO and want to stop the peace process. Should these extremist groups prevail and end the peace process, the long term cost to the region will be much higher than the sums the U.S. now is seeking.

At the same time, the U.S. has continued to receive messages through high level intermediaries from the PLO and the Palestinian negotiators themselves. Even though they rejected the U.S. draft document tabled in the ninth round, the Palestinians have continued to offer suggestions and modifications to the statement.

In addition, the Palestinians and Israelis have remained engaged in active diplomacy. PLO Chairman Yasir `Arafat gave interviews to Israeli journalists and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was interviewed by a Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem.

At one point, Israel floated the idea of allowing Palestinian autonomy in Gaza before the West Bank. Called “Gaza first”, this initiative was actively debated in the Israeli press. Interesting enough, the PLO did not reject the idea—but instead made a counter-offer of “Gaza and Jericho first”. This was floated both in the press and through an intermediary, the Austrian Prime Minister.

While the Israelis have since pulled back from the idea and sought to redefine it—“Gaza first” would only occur after agreement on general principles and not involve full Israeli military withdrawal—it still remains on the table as a point for discussion. This is the type of process that goes into the making of genuine negotiations.

And there has been movement, or the appearance of movement, in other areas as well, as new ideas are actively being solicited to give the Palestinians the assurances and confidence they require and to provide the Israelis with the feeling of security they need to proceed down the road to peace.

Talking Past Each Other

But with all of the activity and the positive movement it represents, after discussions this week with all of the key U.S. players on Middle East policy and with Palestinian negotiators, I am convinced that despite their shared and stated desire of all sides to move toward a peace agreement, there are still some fundamental problems that create false impressions and misperceptions, inhibit rapid progress in the process.

In fact, it may be that it is simply the “desire for peace” that the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians share. There remain profound differences between the parties—including the U.S.—that affect how they view each other and how they operate with each other, both of which have a direct bearing on the negotiations and the chances for quick progress.

All three, for example, have different definitions of success for the peace process and different definitions of peace. Each party has different needs and radically different internal political dynamics that circumscribe their policy choices. Each party, therefore, approaches the talks with different strategies for achieving their different goals which the other parties, not surprisingly, cannot understand or appreciate at times. I believe that these differences account for many of the difficulties encountered in the talks thus far.

It is therefore, important to address these differences, because they are invisible inhibitors of progress, and they will only be removed when they are understood by all sides.

The United States

In a little publicized recent event, Martin Indyk, U.S. Director of National Security for the Middle East, released what was described as a result of a U.S. Middle East policy review. While the paper presents the policy of the Clinton Administration on the Middle East the peace process, it does not differ substantially from the policy of the Bush Administration.

In short, the paper outlines what it calls a policy of containment in the Gulf—containing Iraq and Iran in an effort to alter their behavior—while in the Mashriq the paper calls for pursuing a policy dedicated to achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement.

In fact, the peace policy itself is a form of containment, since the goal of peace is presented not, as the Arabs define it, as the fulfillment of rights or the correcting of an injustice, but in the defusing of tensions and the creation of normal relationships between the Arab states and Israel, thereby protecting U.S. interests in a friendly and stable Middle East.

While this is a traditional U.S. view and is not easily criticized, it falls far short of Palestinian aspirations and in part helps to define how the U.S. pursues the peace process. U.S. ground rules are defined by this consideration.

This traditional U.S. view is determined in part by U.S. domestic political considerations. U.S. interests in the Middle East are defined in terms of protecting and maintaining the U.S.-Israel relationship. As a function of politics, there are real limits to the pressure the U.S. can and will apply to Israel. The ground rules that the U.S. applies to its behavior in the region are defined, in part, by this consideration.

This is why Palestinian proposals to the U.S. to restart the U.S.-PLO dialogue, rebuke Israel for human rights violations or to compel Israel to abide by international law—as reasonable as they sound to Palestinians—are all non-starters for U.S. domestic political reasons, and also because the U.S. displays a deep appreciation of internal Israeli politics and options that are acceptable to that state. The imperative that impels the U.S. to move toward peace is neither outrage at Israeli violations of Palestinian rights nor fulfillment of UN obligations. It is rather the imperative of U.S. interests which, in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Gulf War, require that the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved so as to secure U.S. interests in the broader region.

This is not to say that U.S. officials involved in the peace process are not affected by the plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories or concerned for Palestinian human rights. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these same officials do not and even can not act directly on the basis of these concerns. Consequently, when Palestinians demand attention to their concerns or request U.S. assurances on issues the U.S. knows will be highly controversial in Israel (such as Jerusalem, immediate withdrawal from the territories or recognition of the Palestinian to self-determination), the U.S. response is never as direct as the Palestinians would like. Instead, the U.S. proposes that the Palestinians engage in the peace process in order to secure long-term rights through negotiations with Israel.

This is, from the U.S. view, neither duplicitous nor evasive. Given the limits of what the U.S. can do and what the U.S. understands that Israel is willing to do, open-ended negotiations represent the only and (therefore, in the U.S. view) the best way to achieve peace and secure Palestinian rights.

Such a view, while logical given the limits imposed on U.S. action by domestic political considerations and by U.S. appreciation of internal Israeli politics, fails to take into account Palestinian needs and their strategies.

The Palestinians

It is fascinating to observe how different U.S. officials both do and do not understand the needs of the Palestinian leadership and their negotiating strategies.

U.S. officials who deal regularly with Palestinians and the negotiating team continually complain that the Palestinians either have no negotiating strategy or that their strategy is short-sighted and naive. For example, I’ve heard U.S. officials say, “The Palestinians continue to demand assurances we can’t give.” “They continue to demand good-faith gestures from the Israelis—nothing they get is ever enough.”

On other occasions, these same officials will acknowledge their understanding of how vulnerable Palestinian negotiators feel—especially after Israel expelled suspected Hamas sympathizers to Lebanon. They appreciate the fact that the Palestinian negotiating team that went to Madrid was a compromise with Israel to deny the PLO a seat at the table—thereby denying formal recognition of Palestinian national rights on the one hand and replacing the Palestinian leadership with a group who, while they are talented and respected leaders in their own right, need to continually refer to their leadership (the PLO) for legitimacy and protection from extremist tendencies in the Occupied Territories.

While the Palestinians accepted the Madrid framework in principle, they approach the talks as the weakest of the negotiating parties. Since from their perspective, Israel has the upper hand in every area—control of land and water, superior military force and a “special relationship” with the U.S.—the Palestinians seek constant assurances of U.S. commitments to their rights.

And while the U.S. letters of invitation to the Madrid talks provided Palestinians with sufficient assurances to participate in the talks, they left so many issues undefined and now, with a new U.S. Administration in place, the Palestinians want at least the principles contained in the Baker letter to be strongly reaffirmed.

For its part, the U.S. seems unwilling to reissue these assurances, whether out of pique from the continuing Palestinian demands or because of U.S. fears over the possible Israeli reaction if the assurances are too detailed. It appears that it is precisely this latter case that is responsible for the U.S. hesitancy, which further aggravates Palestinian fears and causes them to insist on a detailed restatement of U.S. commitments.

At the same time the expulsions, and now the closure of the Occupied Territories and an increased Israeli violence against Palestinian demonstrators, has created new hardships both for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and also for the Palestinian negotiating team. As Faisal Husseini recently noted, “If you want us to be flexible in the negotiations, you must provide us with the means to be credible with our constituents.” In the face of extreme hardship and deteriorating human rights conditions, the credibility of the Palestinian negotiating team has gone down. This has simultaneously affected their ability to be flexible.

In response to the U.S. invitation to “Engage in the talks and reach an accord with Israel, the benefits of peace will enhance your credibility,” the Palestinians respond “You don’t understand: we need to enhance our legitimacy and credibility first so that we will have the confidence to engage.”

When asked what they require to enhance their credibility, Palestinians respond with items like: a detailed restatement of U.S. assurances on Palestinian rights, restarting the U.S.-PLO dialogue as an expression of U.S. recognition of Palestinian national rights, and help in securing funds to support the PLO and the economically distressed Occupied Territories—the very things that the U.S. either believes it can not do or, in the case of the funds, is trying without success to do.

Israel

Israel, for all its strength, is also in some ways a weak party in the negotiations. Israel’s decision to seek peace is motivated principally by two factors: the desire of the Rabin government not to antagonize the U.S. (as the Shamir government did), and by a demographic consideration, i.e., the desire not to annex the Territories and include another 1.8 million Palestinians in Israel’s own population.

That being said, it follows that Israel’s vision of peace is not at all compatible with the Palestinian vision. Because of the weakness of Rabin’s Labor-led coalition, and because there is no clear majority in Israel which favors withdrawing from the Occupied Territories, Rabin’s government is seeking peace in the Occupied Territories without committing to withdraw from them. And because Israelis have developed a deep and abiding fear for their security built on the real tragedy of the Holocaust and the exaggerated sense of the Arab threat to their security, the Israeli government can not accept the Palestinian call for withdrawal and an independent state. To do so would run counter to the political mythology shared by most Israelis that, by definition, an independent Palestinian state is a “mortal threat” to their survival.

And then there is the Likud, the leading party in opposition to Rabin’s government, which refused even the limited terms of peace accepted by Labor. With a strong Likud Party challenging them in the Knesset and inflaming public passions against the peace process claiming, like the religious parties, a God-given right to all the territories, Rabin feels especially constrained in terms of what he can offer to and what he can accept from the Palestinians.

The Israeli attitudes and strategies emanating from this background are not at all conducive to winning Palestinian trust or meeting Palestinian needs. And while U.S. officials understand the limits on Israel’s flexibility imposed by Israeli politics and national psychology, as I have noted, the same U.S. officials do not always appreciate in the same way the impossible political burden this creates for the Palestinians.

Israelis often approach the negotiations only after having completed an intense internal debate over what is acceptable in their own political context. The result is that they present their position as a conclusion of the negotiating process. “We have agreed,” they say, “to offer this and nothing more.” Even when the Israelis agree to U.S. pressure to offer a human rights concession to the Palestinians, they present it in a manner they determine will make it appear acceptable to Likud, which invariably makes the same concession appear almost insulting to the Palestinians.

***

Without further belaboring the point, the problem, as I see it, is three parties all working on peace yet defining peace in different ways, and all using strategies developed to respond to internal political pressures. The result is that all three parties, while showing some movement and defining some areas of agreement are, on central issues of concern, often talking past each other. And this is the problem that prevents substantial and immediate breakthroughs in the peace talks.

Yet, for all of this, there still may be some progress in the tenth round.

The U.S. may still secure funding for the PLO and the Occupied territories. This, if achieved, will enhance the ability of the Palestinian negotiating team to engage more fully in the talks. They will be able, at last, to demonstrate some benefits to their beleaguered constituents.

And the U.S. may yet provide some assurances as required by the Palestinians. While this will not be as complete a statement as the Palestinians are asking for, President Clinton may find in his June 18th meeting with King Hussein an opportunity to better define his Middle East position. This, too, could boost Palestinian morale and help them engage more fully in the peace process.

The Foreign Ministers’ discussion in Vienna may help to better define the Syrian definition of peace, the Israeli definition of withdrawal, and the U.S. commitment to security guarantees. This could go a long way toward providing Israelis with the confidence they need to sell a withdrawal from the Golan Heights to their public.

And, finally, quite independent of U.S. involvement, the direct Israeli-Palestinian discussion may yet find a way to the define “Gaza first” approach or some variation that is acceptable to both the Palestinians and the Israelis or, with U.S. assistance, may finally be able to agree to an agenda, which would at least represent a procedural breakthrough in the talks.

But through all of this the progress, if it is to occur, will be piecemeal—fundamental concerns which the Palestinians want addressed will not be on the table at this point, because Israel is no ready to offer them at this point, nor is the U.S. able to do so.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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