Posted on December 13, 1993 in Washington Watch

The three months that have elapsed since the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles have been filled with tragedy and genuine threats to peace.

The euphoria that accompanied the signing in both Israeli and Palestinian society has subsided, not only among the often cited “enemies of peace” but now even the average “men on the street” are questioning whether peace is, in fact, near at hand.

The spiral of violence is increasing and at times appears to be out of control, and is exacting a toll in human life and from the morale of Palestinians and Israelis. The result has been a shift back to “old thinking,” and every day those who oppose peace find reinforcements who share their fears and validate their hatreds.

Statements made by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders show continuing and strong support for the peace process and the accommodation that such a process will require. But events on the ground are weakening the leaders’ ability to make the trade-offs needed to implement the accord.

Had the past three months been uneventful, both leaderships would have had the time and political room required to negotiate and make difficult choices. But the rising death toll has reduced the breathing space provided by the September 13th accords to the point where both leaderships have become boxed-in by constituents who are by degrees angry, concerned and disheartened.

In this context, more dangerous than the actual killers are the more mainstream leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian left opposition, and the Israeli Likud and religious right wing. Although they distance themselves from the acts of violence, the actively play off the fear these events bring out in both communities.

This is textbook terrorism at work. Fringe groups use violence to create fear and provoke repression, and then reap the “harvest” of repression by claiming that the established order won’t work. What is novel about this situation is the unholy alliance between Israeli and Palestinian terrorists who are essentially working together to thwart the peace process.

(It is would also be amusing to note, were it not so tragic, that the terrorists are convinced that the other can achieve what it wants through peace. The Palestinian extremists believe that peace will only bring continued Israeli domination; while the Israeli terrorists are certain that peace will eventually bring about a Palestinian state. It is lamentable that neither side is listening, because if they were the extremists from the other side might convince them to support the peace process.)

Further complicating the situation is the reaction of the Israeli military, which has played into the hands of the “enemies of peace.” Excessive shootings and killings, the continued practice of hunting down and killing “suspects,” and the gratuitous brutality of daily life under occupation have contributed to a serious erosion of support for the peace process in the Palestinian community.

So, too, the virtual silence of the Palestinian leadership (with one exception) in the face of repeated killings of Jewish settlers has brought many Israelis to wonder how secure their lives would be living next to Palestinian-ruled territory.

While the words of both leaderships demonstrate a shared commitment to a negotiated settlement, the cycle of violence requires that they do more. To this point, they seem incapable of doing any more.

The psychological breakthroughs of the September 13th signing was not accompanied by a political breakthrough. The accords themselves were left deliberately vague, ambiguous and, in a few cases, contradictory. It was hoped that the political capital earned from the signing would provide both the strength and incentive to resolve the difficulties – but, as I have noted, the passing of time, the violence and the reactions of both societies to it have eaten away at the capital earned on September 13.

Consequently, both leaderships now find themselves in a position not unlike the one in which they found themselves at the conclusion of the ninth round of the Madrid talks. There is a desperate need for a breakthrough, but both sides are too weak to make any further movements. As before, such a situation may require an outside agent to help them do what hey are unable to do on a strictly bilateral basis. In this setting, the U.S. should play a more active role and become the “real partner” that Secretary of State Warren Christopher regularly uses when he describes this country’s role.

Oslo happened because the U.S. could not or would not provide the independent leadership needed to help both parties move forward. After Oslo, the September 13th signing and the last three months of violence, a now and more volatile reality has emerged; but the stakes are higher now because so many people’s hopes have been raised on both sides of the Green Line. At this crucial moment U.S. leadership and action, which has been lacking during much of the post-Madrid period, is very much needed.

The U.S. should not negotiate for the parties, but it should provide “good offices” and gap-bridging proposals to help the parties break deadlocks. It must also provide consistently strong reinforcement to both leaderships. And the U.S. ought to provide a balanced vision of peace attractive enough to assist both leaderships to win back the public support they need to make accommodations (and hence an agreement) possible.

In the midst of negotiations it is difficult for a concerned public to tell the forest from the trees. Technical issues bog down not only the negotiators but also obscure from public view the desired outcome. It is, therefore, imperative that an outside friend of the process to continue to hold out the picture of where peace will lead.

For Israelis to feel the sense of security to which will enable them to withdraw from the territories, they must be reminded that leaving the territories is not a favor or a concession but a necessity. Rabin recently articulated this idea in a major address, but it must be reinforced by repetition many times over. Israelis must realize that there is more security in peace than in continued occupation, and more prosperity and security within a comprehensive peace (including trade, travel, cultural exchanges, etc.) than in holding Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian real estate.

Similarly, Palestinians must be assured that the occupation will end and they will be free to shape their lives and determine their own destiny. The good offices of the U.S. should provide the Palestinians a portrait of their future as an independent people.

Clearly, good offices and portrait painting can only do so much, and a third-party “full partner” can only do so much. There is a compelling need for concrete progress, however small it may seem, to help both sides prove that peace is not only possible but also that, when it is achieved, it will bring positive changes in people’s daily lives.

The quicker the movement toward withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian police force, and the more rapid the improvement of daily life in the territories, the more rapid will be the decrease in violence. Palestinians will acquire a vested interest in stability, and will view terrorist acts as provocations that can only bring about a return of Israeli forces.

Palestinians must be willing, as some Palestinian leaders already have, to assure Israelis that Palestinian police will provide security to all within their jurisdiction, and that they will crack down on violence. This is not anti-intifada. It is pro-intifada in the truest sense of building the infrastructure of Palestinian society toward Palestinian independence from Israeli rule.

With assurances and a renewed sense of confidence and public support, Israel must move to stop the settlers because their violence not only kills Palestinians and impedes Israeli withdrawal (which is their intention), but it also blocks Israeli efforts to achieve recognition and end its regional isolation. Settler violence, then, helps perpetuate Israel as a garrison state at war with it neighbors.

At the same time Palestinian violence, far from ending the occupation and bringing closer the day of a Palestinian state, slows the Israeli withdrawal and brings on increased Israeli repression.

Extremists on both sides must be held accountable not for merely challenging their leadership and impeding this particular set of negotiations but, more significantly, for locking their respective societies into a maelstrom of conflict and fear. The cycle can be slowed and eventually stopped.

The danger is that these three months of violence and repression have produced new scars on the psyches of both peoples that will make it more difficult to move forward. There still is no going back, but the new reality may not be as promising as once generally believed. The sooner the process gets moving again, the fewer obstacles there will be to overcome. All parties to the Madrid process, including the U.S., must work earnestly to fulfill their obligations to peace.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus