Posted on September 09, 1994 in Washington Watch

It is one year after the handshake on the White House lawn and the peace process, while expanding in several significant directions, remains both fragile and threatened.

Some boldly claim an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and even offer lofty visions of a “new Middle East.” But before beginning to build too high, it is important to address the nagging problems that plague the process as its base.

The foundation of a successful and expanding process must be built in Gaza. Failure to pass this test can bring down the entire edifice of peace.

This is not to say that Gaza stands alone, or that peace can be built in Gaza or Jericho alone. They were to be but a first step in a dynamic process, the genius of which was that each step would lead to another. As each new step was taken successfully, confidence would be created to take the next step toward comprehensive and lasting peace.

The steps to be taken were carefully laid out. First, there was to be an enlargement of Palestinian rule and Israeli withdrawal from the remainder of the West Bank. At the end of two years, final status talks were to begin on the especially troublesome issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and final borders. What was understood was that as mutual trust grew, issues that today seem intractable would in two or three years be more easily resolved.

The problem, simply put, is that trust has not grown in large measure due to the intense opposition to the peace accords in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. As a result, Israeli and PLO leaderships are threatened. Their opponents have been able to drive the internal debate within their respective communities and force policies that undercut the leaders trying to make the peace process work.

An additional complicating factor is that the U.S. is also plagued by internal weaknesses and has not provided balanced and mutually reinforcing support needed by both leaderships. In the most basic sense, Israelis and Palestinians are in a bind.

What one party does to reinforce and strengthen its domestic position, only serves to weaken the other. And given the asymmetry of power in the equation, Israeli actions and policies are left to drive the process, further undermining PLO legitimacy and credibility.

Rabin, for example, plays a weak political hand in Israel today. His governing coalition holds only a slight edge over the opposition and recent polls suggest that Labor could lose the next 1996 elections. Israeli opponents of peace sense this fragility and are emboldened to latch on to each Palestinian miscue as justification to intensify their opposition to the sitting government’s pro-peace policy. Thus every Arafat sniffle produces a Rabin sneeze. Even more dismaying are the actions of Hamas, which severely threaten Rabin’s ability to hold public support for even the most basic elements of the agreement.

Rabin responds either by taking strong measures to reinforce his domestic political base or by trying to push Arafat to take further steps to build Israeli trust.

This much is understood by U.S. policymakers. What is not appreciated are the equally problematic pressures facing the PLO leadership. Arafat is vulnerable to opponents of peace as well. He, too, requires evidence of external support to build Palestinian confidence in the peace process. At best, this support has been limited. Selling a phased peace process to a much beleaguered constituency that expected and deserved much more is made even more difficult by Israel’s manner of implementation and the slow response from the international community to support the agreement in fact as well as word.

Arafat – having recognized Israel, accepted a phased solution and deferred major issues to later negotiations – had given all that he could to reassure Israel and the international community that he was sincere in pursuing peace. His expectation was that Gaza and later the entirety of the West Bank would be flooded with international investment to create jobs, opportunity, and hope. These, in turn, would generate trust and confidence in his leadership and ultimately in the peace process itself.

This critical assistance has not been immediately forthcoming, however, and one result is that Arafat has been ridiculed and subjected to constant attack and weakened to the point where he cannot respond to Israeli demands for more confidence-building measures without further risking his legitimacy among his own people. It is a vicious, self-feeding cycle.

The United States has not been nearly as helpful as it could have been in helping this process move along. What has been needed throughout were mutually reinforcing gestures in support of both Palestinian and Israeli leadership. Instead, the response has been measured doses of the same one-sided policies that plagued U.S. policy prior to September 13 a year ago.

No where has this been more true than in Congress, which this year passed a $3 billion aid package to Israel and added to it another $80 million for Russian Jewish refugees to Israel. As in past years, the aid will be delivered to Israel up front and in cash. Israel is the only U.S. aid recipient to receive its money without any accounting requirements or oversight.

The $80 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinians, on the other hand, is heavily encumbered by restrictive and even insulting amendments. While the Administration sought to block many of these Congressionally-driven amendments (with, it must be noted, the support of some key pro-Israel lobbyists), they could not overcome the traditional anti-Palestinian sentiment that rages in Congress.

One amendment to the Palestinian aid package stipulates that no U.S. assistance to the Palestinians can be spent to support Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. Another requires that the PLO “amend its National Covenant to eliminate all references calling for the destruction of Israel.” Still another stipulates that aid to the Palestinian is conditional on the PLO “renouncing the Arab League boycott of Israel, urging the nations of the Arab League to end the boycott of Israel….and condemn individual acts of terrorism and violence.”

And unlike aid to Israel, U.S. assistance to the Palestinians does not go to the Palestinians. It is subject to the designs of the Agency of International Development’s (USAID) bureaucracy which commits it to projects of its own creation – which may or may not be Palestinian priorities. While the administration has not been pleased with this outcome, it has not been able to counter Congressional biases. This has further tied its hands in trying to support the peace process in a meaningful and dynamic way.

What has not changed in the United States is the inability of U.S. legislators to grasp that both Palestinians and Israelis took risks for peace and that, therefore, both require U.S. support in trying to advance the cause of peace.

Many in Congress and some in the Administration still act as if only Israel requires confidence-building gestures. Hence the demands that the PLO’s leadership take additional steps to “prove” their commitment to peace.

What is ignored, of course, is the destructive effect such measures could have. If Arafat, already faced with internal opposition, heavy-handed Israeli actions and a trickle of international aid, were to take such steps he might win friends in Congress but he would lose support and credibility among his own people. This is especially true because no corresponding demands are being made on Israel – such as halting all settlement activity or respecting in deed the agreement not to alter the status of Jerusalem.

A few concrete steps could be taken now to provide balanced support to both the PLO leadership and the Rabin government.

The flow of donor aid to the Palestinians must begin. It appears that creative ways are now being found to resolve the “accountability” issue. These were available months ago and the delay in providing assistance has only served to weaken support for peace. It is less expensive to support the peace process up front than it will be to pay the price of its failure at a later date.

What is troubling about the call for accountability and transparency and the use of these issues to stall aid to the Palestinians is the extent to which it reflects the traditional double standard in dealing with Palestinians. The standards demanded of the PLO are not required of Israel or many other states. For that matter, political and business practices within the United States rarely meet the standards being imposed on the PLO by the World Bank. This is not to say that demands for accountability are wrong, but administrative oversight cannot be created out of whole cloth. It, too, will take time. But assistance to earmarked projects with, if necessary, independent administrative oversight, must be an immediate priority. Economic development alone is not sufficient, but its absence could be fatal to lasting peace.

It must be reaffirmed that the status of Jerusalem is an issue for negotiations. Statements regarding the status of Jerusalem by either party must be allowed without external interference. Both parties claim Jerusalem as their capital and that is what the negotiations will be about. To censure Arafat for his statements while allowing continued Israeli references to Jerusalem as “the undivided capital of Israeli” is, at best, prejudicial to the outcome of these discussions.

What must be condemned are unilateral acts that violate the Madrid accords and prejudge the final status of the city. In this regard it is important to note that Jerusalem is not a “united” city. It is more accurate to say that East Jerusalem is a captive and divided city. Continued Israeli expansion of settlements, many miles east, north and south of the city, and road building activity, aim at isolating East Jerusalem and are violations of international law and the very agreement on which the peace process is built.

These Israeli practices together with the continued closure of Jerusalem to the rest of the Palestinian community are far more damaging to the peace process than any statement made by Arafat about Jerusalem’s status. The United States should be vigorous in insisting that these Israeli practices stop. While all parties agree that Jerusalem is a final status issue, the U.S. should convene immediate Israel-Palestinian discussions on the current circumstances of Jerusalem and an interim agreement should be sought to ensure compliance with the Madrid ground rules and secure the rights of all parties until final status talks begin.

A year ago, amid much fanfare, Palestinians and Israelis made an effort to reverse the psychology of two generations of war, massacre, pain and expulsion. It was not an easy step to take, but it was the right step to take. The international community, including the United States and much of the U.S. Congress, rallied behind the signing of the Declaration of Principles. But Middle East peace can occur only if it is based on mutual respect for the rights of all negotiating parties. Israeli sovereignty and security can be assured in a new Middle East, but only if the sovereignty and security of Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan also are assured. Israel can be a prosperous partner in a still visionary economically integrated Middle East, but this cannot come at the expense of Arabs and Palestinians.

It would be short-sighted at best to attempt to bypass the Palestinian component of Middle East peace or to see a future Middle East based on hegemony. A lasting peace can only be established on the basis of mutual respect and fairness.

If the peace process continues to stumble along as it now is – without international or U.S. support, with Israel dominating and opponents doing all they can to derail negotiations – then the peaceful outcome all of us hoped for a year ago will be jeopardized. The region might wind up with peace on paper, but the 46-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict will have been replaced by an even more volatile conflict between the impoverished and dispossessed and those governments that agreed to a “paper” rather than a real and lasting peace.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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