Posted on September 06, 1993 in Washington Watch

The news of a breakthrough agreement between Israel and the PLO hit Washington like an earthquake last week. Everyone was shaken: the Administration, the Congress, the news media and, in a most profound way, the Arab American and American Jewish communities.

Initial reactions among Arab American and American Jews have differed only slightly from those in the Middle East. For the most part there was widespread excitement and support. The opposition in both camps was caught by surprise and has yet to mobilize.

While many Arab Americans have followed the recent fissures in the PLO, and some have voiced their support for the dissidents who charge a lack of democracy or frustration over administrative issues, the drama and significance of the agreement nevertheless has won praise.

There are Arab American ideological opponents of the accords, to be sure, those who fear that “Gaza-Jericho” is a trap or those, especially the 1948 refugees from Haifa, Jaffa, Akka, etc., who feel enormous personal loss and even anger. There are also Hamas supporters who have denounced the agreement as a betrayal. But the problem faced by these Arab American opponents of the accords, is their inability to propose any meaningful alternative. Their mystical appeals to unity or continued struggle ring hollow. As if there hasn’t already been eight decades of struggle, or as if unity by itself was a solution. Most Palestinian Americans who have called our offices or who have called into television and radio shows simply express relief that peace may be at hand and that the bloodshed and daily brutality and humiliation of the occupation may be coming to an end.

These people are not dreamers: we are aware of all the difficulties that these accords will face, and are also aware of all the pitfalls that may still need to be skirted before peace becomes a reality. But what most Arab American analysts, especially those working in American politics, have come to realize is that “politics is the art of the possible.”

It has long been clear to Arab Americans (as it has now become clear to the PLO ) that no American Administration was going to intervene to press concessions from Israel. In a sense, the Norway meetings represented a certain symmetry. Rabin came to realize that the Palestinian delegation appointed under the Madrid rules couldn’t make an agreement and the PLO realized that the U.S. was not going to push Israel to make an agreement, and so both parties needed to make an agreement with each other.

While many Arab Americans would have liked to see Israel yield territory immediately and recognize a Palestinian state—that, we knew, was simply not going to happen. The real obstacle to a more dramatic initial accord was the fact that fully one-half of the Knesset is threatening Rabin’s political life. Absent U.S. government pressure, or any other set of other currently unavailable political forces, the current Israel-PLO accord represents the best deal available.

But more than that, the fact that Israel has now talked to the PLO has created a new and striking political dynamic that may have an important and liberating impact on Arab Americans and American politicians who have until now paid a bitter price for doing the same thing.

And, despite our internal debate, there is real enthusiasm for what has occurred.

American Jews are also experiencing an internal debate. They were ill-prepared for the earthquake. The American Likudniks were schooled for many years to view any interaction with the PLO as taboo and “anti-Israel.” Palestinian nationalism was similarly viewed as unspeakable. To see major American Jewish leaders, therefore, praising the wisdom and courage of Rabin for having talked with the PLO is, to say the least, rather startling.

While such a view is to be expected from the Americans for Peace Now and even the American Jewish Congress, it is interesting to note that AIPAC is organizing a campaign to “sell” the agreement to the Jewish community in order to counter expected opposition from their right-wing elements. Given recent upheavals within AIPAC, this agreement can help both to transform the organization, solidify the position of its new pro-Labor President Steven Grossman, and convince the Rabin government of its loyalty.

American supporters of Labor, even those within AIPAC, are therefore deeply invested in making this agreement work. If it succeeds, they (like Rabin) will win their battle with the right. If it fails, they (like Rabin) will lose their hard-won leadership within the community.

As AIPAC ponders the prospect of lobbying to win Congressional support for a U.S. grant to finance a PLO-led interim government in Gaza and the West Bank, one AIPAC leader expressed to me his realization of how dramatic this earthquake has been.

Arab Americans, in an entirely different way, are preparing for a new political reality. Will this agreement, they wonder, open doors in Washington that have until now been closed? What, they are asking, are the new challenges and new opportunities that this new accord will bring?

In many ways this new situation will not end our work, but will begin an entirely new set of work priorities. There are many “ifs” that must be resolved if peace is to become a reality.

Some of the “ifs can only be resolved by Palestinians and Israelis. Final agreement on language; real guarantees that the first phase will lead to a second phase and to a just and lasting resolution to the conflict; an effective Palestinian administration that provides jobs, opportunities, improvements in daily life and greater security; an honest Israeli commitment to honor the accords in letter and spirit; and real progress in the Lebanese, Syrian and Jordan talks to produce a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

These “ifs” must be resolved if the accords are to lead to the establishment of peace.

Yet even after this, real issues will remain. Among them are Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab states and the significant “final status” issues of Jerusalem and the status of Israeli settlements.

But in the midst of the shock of the “agreement,” there is the dawning of a new awareness that, with peace and a stable interim period of real development and genuine progress, many issues that today seem insoluble will become soluble as trust and confidence increase. It is in this context that this “agreement” is supportable. It, in and of itself, is not a peace accord—but it delineates a process for hard work that can make peace a reality by transforming relations between Israelis and Palestinians, lead to an independent Palestinian state and a resolution of all issues between the two peoples.

Those are some of the issues that only Israelis and Palestinians can solve. But there is a full agenda facing Arab Americans and Jewish Americans as well. U.S. support will be necessary if Middle East peace is to take hold. It is now clear that the Clinton Administration is strongly committed to the Israel-PLO agreement. But Congress must be won over as well. It is noteworthy that only a few members of Congress have spoken out in support of the “Gaza-Jericho” plan.

Despite the fact that AIPAC’s President will work for the agreement, there will be a battle to win over the major contributors in the Jewish community – many of whom are Likud supporters and may be inclined to encourage the Congressmen to oppose the aid package that will be necessary to solidify the agreement. Arab Americans and Jewish Americans will, it appears, have to join forces to win Congressional approval to provide short- and long-term support for this peace process.

But despite this type of cooperation between Arab Americans and Jewish Americans, on broad issues involving U.S. policy there is a strong possibility that differences will remain. For example, Arab Americans will confront new responsibilities which they will have to address as the peace process unfolds. Issues such as: Gulf security, stable and strong support for Arab allies, support for governments experimenting with new forms of government or facing new internal and external threats, and expansion of U.S.-Arab trade opportunities.

The earthquake of the Arab-Israeli peace will not settle all of the problems facing the region or all of the issues of U.S.-Arab relations. In fact, peace may only unearth some hitherto dormant problems, and bring other tensions into sharper focus. But despite these challenges and new realizations, there is a palpable sense of relief.

Israel has broken a taboo, Palestinian national rights have been recognized; those of us who have been punished in the U.S. for supporting Palestinian nationalism can now claim a certain vindication; and if we work to make the “ifs” facing us a reality, at least some semblance of normality can at last come to the Middle East.

And even as we face the new challenges, we can do so with a renewed sense of purpose.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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