Posted on September 30, 1996 in Washington Watch

As recent tragic events make clear, the policies pursued by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first 100 days in office create the risk of shattering what was left of a fragile and fractured peace process

The explosion that rocked Palestine last week was tragically destined to occur. Long-term 70% unemployment, continued land confiscation and road and settlement building, humiliating restrictions on movement and commerce, denial of rights and Israeli refusal to implement even basic provisions of the Oslo Accords—all of these combined to provide the tinderbox. The latest Israeli provocation in Jerusalem provided the spark.

Whether by design or not, Netanyahu’s provocations have resurrected the “old Middle East”, albeit in a potentially more dangerous form.

It was the hope of peace makers that the process would be contagious. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it was assumed, would speed up and give birth to a “new Middle East.” This was the hope, for example, of the Casablanca and Amman Economic Summits.

But building peace was like constructing a building. In this case the building was an inverted pyramid – an inherently unstable structure – with its base resting in the sands of Gaza and the rocky hills of the West Bank. The other “tracks” of the peace process and the prospects for regional cooperation and development were the second and third stories.

If the foundation collapsed, the entire edifice would collapse on top of it.

What we are seeing in Netanyahu’s actions in his first 100 days is not only a set of policies designed to chip away at an unfinished and precarious foundation; but insidious fissures that threaten the entire structure.

Not only have the Palestinians exploded, but the broader Arab world has erupted in anger as well. If Netanyahu hoped to maintain the benefits of the edifice of peace – the relationships with Egypt and Jordan, international acceptance and cooperation, and increased economic assistance – while destroying the foundation that made that all possible, he will, it appears, be frustrated in his efforts.

If official and unofficial Arab reaction has been indicative of anything over the past few weeks, it has been to make clear that peace with the Palestinians is the sine qua non for a broader Middle East peace. If peace could be contagious, so could its absence.

When Netanyahu was elected, Arabs were told to “wait and see.” “He might,” it was said, “turn out to be Nixon going to China.” Having waited 100 days, Arabs have seen instead an Israeli Prime Minister who seems to be modeling himself after Ronald Reagan, disdainful of compromise and seeking instead a confrontation to “bring down the evil empire.”

Netanyahu is, of course, no Reagan; and the Arab world is not the “evil empire.” Rather, the current Prime Minister of Israel is the inheritor of a peace process and series of agreements. He is not, as he believes, a major player who can reshape the world. Rather, he is a participant in a process the success of which is dependent upon the participation of all actors working together.

But peace is not Israel’s alone. It is not merely an Arab-Israeli peace process, but an international process in which many nations have an interest and a say.

And so it is no surprise that the explosion in Palestine rocked European capitals and Washington politics as well. Politically, the Middle East peace process was one of the Clinton Administration’s major goals and most highly touted foreign policy accomplishment. On several occasions the President has noted how strongly invested the U.S. is in the completion of the Middle East peace process. Accepting the strategic view of the Bush-Baker team that engineered Madrid, the current Administration understands that the U.S. has a vital national security interest in Middle East peace. At stake is the security and stability of U.S. allies and interests in the region.

Though constrained by long-term practice born of domestic politics (especially in a presidential year), the Clinton Administration has repeatedly but privately warned Netanyahu to avoid provocations and creating flashpoints. Additionally, it has also insisted that the new Israeli government honor commitments made by the prior government. And while agreeing to give the new government time to find its political course and resolve political differences, the Clinton team has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a comprehensive peace.

Faced now with a crisis just four weeks before a critical national election, the Administration responded by restating those principles.

From recent discussions with Administration officials, it is clear that they grasp the urgency of the current crisis.

If there is any serious fault to be found in the Administration’s response, it has been the oblique nature of its public position. Even here, it is clear that the Israeli press has deciphered the codes and correctly read that the Administration holds Netanyahu responsible for the provocation and disruption of the peace process. But Arabs critics are right to note that in failing to clearly assess blame, the Administration appears to give Netanyahu undeserved breathing space and fails to give Palestinians a clear enough sense of hope that the U.S. is committed to their rights.

Presently, the Administration is insisting that the Israelis make a “dramatic gesture” to restore Palestinian confidence in the process. But serious questions remain as to whether or not private diplomacy will work with a Likud government. In the past, only public diplomacy has forced Israeli governments to move and only public pressure has given Arabs confidence that the U.S. is committed to a balanced and fair peace process. A more assertive U.S. role can be instrumental in putting together the shattered peace process.

But in this struggle to restart the peace process, the Arabs are not powerless. While the Administration assesses the current danger to the process and the potential damage to the entire region if this crisis escalates, it is imperative that the Arab world act. Arab leaders should reaffirm their commitment to comprehensive peace and to their demand that that peace be based on adherence to agreements reached and full Israeli reciprocity and accountability for its actions.

Arab pressure on the U.S. and Israel could be helpful is positively and constructively applied. Given the dialectic interaction that binds the parties of the process to one another, the actions of each party directly affects the others. Just as Netanyahu’s provocation can cause disruption in the broader region, Arab actions could counter such negative policies. A clear message must be sent, for example, to the Israeli business community that the benefits of peace are dependent upon continued progress on the path toward peace. Constructive and positive Arab pressure on Israel could be instrumental in provoking an internal Israeli debate regarding the actions of their government.

The explosion in Palestine is a tragedy born of anger and despair. In itself, it is no solution; but may be a step on the road to finding a solution. If any lasting good can come from this new tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people, it will be in a unified Arab stand to change the negative dynamic within Israel and to press the U.S. to be more assertive in the preservation of its direct investment in securing a just, comprehensive, and mutually beneficial peace.

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