Posted on August 18, 1997 in Washington Watch

There are both positive and negative features to the U.S. initiatives to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. On the negative side is the obvious shift in the logic of the Administration’s approach to peace that formed the underpinning both of Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s speech and Ambassador Dennis Ross’ mission to the Middle East.

By decoupling political and security issues and prioritizing the security dimension, the new U.S. approach appears to mimic the line of the Netanyahu government. It also appears to undercut the very basis of the Madrid process first enunciated by President Bush in 1991. Bush called for simultaneous realization of peace and security terming the “realization of Palestinian rights” and the “guarantees of Israel’s security” the “twin tests for peace”, both of which, he stated, were a function of each other and both of which must be achieved to ensure the other.

While U.S. officials now insist that the Palestine National Authority must act first to provide Israel’s security, they, both privately and publicly suggest that such a position is necessary both to restore trust with the Israeli body politic and to provide political cover for U.S. pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction and enter into good faith final status negotiations.

The need for “political cover” is, of course, a reference to the increasingly anti-Palestinian and anti-peace positions being taken by the U.S. Congress and the majority of mainstream national Jewish organizations. These groups have increasingly sharpened their attack on the Palestinian Authority and President Arafat not only pressing Israel’s demands but even going so far as to accuse the PNA of complicity in the recent bombing attacks.

While the Administration’s position on the security question might, therefore, seem to be a necessary and pragmatic stance, as one official noted, “we can only help push the Israelis if Arafat helps us, it is dangerous as well.
Firstly, by focusing on the alleged Palestinian failure in the security area, the Administration fuels an argument they are seeking to diffuse – mainly that Arafat’s failings in this area make him somehow responsible for the bombings in Jerusalem.

Secondly, by itemizing, as the Secretary of State did, the steps the U.S. is requiring the PNA to take, namely, increased information sharing and cooperation with Israeli agencies, detecting and deterring future terrorist acts, seizing arms, arresting those accused of terrorism (and not releasing them) and “destroying the infrastructure of terrorism” – the U., S is both placing unrealistic demands on the PNA and setting them up for failure.

It must be observed that the compromise worked out by Ambassador Ross may produce a more acceptable approach to moving forward on the security issue than what was demanded by the Israelis or what was initially outlined by Secretary Albright. By establishing a tripartite panel of U.S. CIA, Israeli Shin Bet and Palestinian Preventive Security representatives to vet information and evaluate progress, the Palestinians may not be subjected to unilateral Israeli demands or judgments. Such a panel moderated by the CIA might allow the U.S. to make its own assessment of the Palestinian’s performance in security matters. If the U.S. initiative is, in fact, a good faith effort to ease the Palestinian’s security burden and if the Palestinian Authority can make what the U.S. views as a “reasonable effort” to improve the security situation, the Israelis may not be fully satisfied but the U.S. could still note “positive results” thereby allowing the Secretary of State’s political mission to begin.

It is important to state that the U.S. standard for positive results must, however,
be lower than the Israeli demands or the items outlined in the Secretary’s speech, since the Palestinian Authority is in no political position to take those extreme measures.

Another danger in decoupling security and political issues is the power that such separation gives to the extremist groups that would use terror to sabotage the peace process. Given this new logic of “security first” each terrorist action plays right into the hands of the Israeli and Palestinian extremists who want to end the process.

A final concern that must be noted as resulting from this decoupling has been a deepening of Arab concern and even distrust of the U.S. role and the commitment of the Clinton Administration to pursue an evenhanded approach to the peace process. While the U.S. is focused on rebuilding Israeli-Palestinian trust and neutralizing Israeli (and U.S. right-wing opposition to a just peace, it has severely weakened its standing in the Arab world.

We raised these concerns with the Secretary of State during a conference call she had with some Arab American leaders the morning of her speech. We urged her to avoid playing the “blame game” with President Arafat, to maintain the link between security and political progress and to not press the Palestinians to do more than they were politically able to do (and not to press them to take measures that would result in a further erosion of human rights). She insisted that the political issues would be addressed and that she would press the Israelis against unilateral acts that violated the very logic of a negotiating process. All she was requiring, she insisted, was that the security environment be improved and security cooperation be restored before she felt comfortable enough to begin her political mission.

These positions were elaborated upon in discussions with White House and State Department officials following Ambassador Ross’ mission to the Middle East revealed much the same positions. These officials repeated their insistence that the Palestinian Authority must show real effort on the security front as a prerequisite to further movement in the process.

They said that prior to the Jerusalem bombing the Administration was working on developing an initiative to press the Israelis on settlements and other issues so as to restart talks. At the same time, they said they were warning the Palestinian Authority to move on security issues since there was concern that a bombing attack would derail the U.S. efforts.

Now following the Jerusalem bombing attack, these Administration officials concluded that security must be addressed first so that the Secretary can begin her political mission. They insist that if the security test is passed, the Secretary will bring real pressure to bear on Israel to stop settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank to fulfill agreements on the port and airport for Gaza and the West Bank-Gaza safe passage route.

At the same time, these officials make clear that the U.S. engagement in final status talks will be real and substantive. They point to the President and Secretary of State’s assertions that the peace process must be a two-way street and note that the U.S. will bring to the negotiating table a vision of what both sides should do to move final status talks to a successful conclusion.

With all this said, however, several questions remain. Assuming that the security tests are passed and the Secretary, in fact, comes to the region, how vigorous will she be in pursuing the Israelis to make meaningful concessions to restore Palestinian confidence? Will U.S. sensitivities to domestic politics and to internal Israeli politics allow for real public pressure on Israel?

If the U.S. plan to speed up final status talks is to be a serious effort to reach a settlement, how engaged would the U.S. be in the process? Since the Palestinians lack any meaningful leverage in negotiations, how assertive will the U.S. be to assist them in achieving their minimal national aspirations? And will the Palestinians be left alone at the table to face the Netanyahu dictate of an “Allon +” plan as their future? Or will the U.S. be as assertive in insisting on the Palestinian right to full sovereignty and security as they have been in pressing Arabs to recognize Israel’s sovereignty and security?

And one final big question – even if the U.S. presses Israel and delivers on its commitment to see the peace process be a two-way street, will or even can, the Netanyahu government meet the minimum Palestinian requirements on settlements, statehood, Jerusalem, refugees and land and water rights?

With regard to the Likud government’s ability to make peace, I have serious doubts. With regard to the U.S. role, I may not be as pessimistic as some, but I’ll need to see clear signs of follow through before I can be listed as an optimist.

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