Winners and Losers

by Gershon Baskin, Ph.D.*

Forwarded message: From: peace@NETVISION.NET.IL (Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information) Sender: SALAAM-V-SHALOM@LISTSERV.AOL.COM (Arabs and Jews seeking peace.)

IPCRI Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information

May 13, 1997

Dr. Baskin is the Israeli co-director of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem

Dear President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright,

With the peace mission of Ambassador Dennis Ross coming to a close without producing any real results in getting the peace process restarted, it is time to reevaluate the entire strategy of the peace process and the US role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Where are we now?

Prime Minister Netanyahu has succeeded in advancing settlements in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza thus causing a breakdown in the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu was never really interested in moving ahead with the peace process because he understood from the outset of the Oslo process that the main variable in question is territory.

Oslo set out to transfer territory from Israel to the Palestinians in a gradual process that would lead to discussions on levels and scope of sovereignty rather than on who holds which territory. The game plan was supposed to bring about a situation under which the Palestinians have in their possession close to 90% of the territory of the West Bank before reaching a final status agreement on the nature of the Palestinian entity.

When Mr. Netanyahu agreed to enter into the Oslo game he knew what the rules were and what were the expectations. He also knew that he would vie to change the rules of the game and by that empty the Oslo process from its main ingredient. This was his strategy from day one of his administration and he has accomplished his goal. Oslo is frozen. According to him, if the Palestinians wish to continue to discuss final status they must agree from now on that they recognize they will only get about 50% of the territory under their control - no more. Mr. Netanyahu's settlement plans were devised in such a way as to make clear his refusal to relinquish additional territories. His recent comments about final status are more than a clear indication of his strategy.

Mr. Arafat is empty handed in his ability to thwart Israeli plans from making him the ruler of Gaza (or 2/3 of Gaza) and less than 50% of the West Bank. Mr. Arafat has been unable to rally the support of a frustrated and despairing public. Hamas is also not gaining support because the Palestinian public also doesn't believe that they can deliver. There is always the chance and the probability that individual terrorists or terror cells supported by Hamas or Jihad will take action. Arafat knows that this will not help his situation and therefore his troops are still keeping a close vigil on those potential terrorists. Of course, this is not fool proof and individuals can slip through at any time.

Arafat is clearly trying to rally the support of the Arab world with Egypt taking the lead. But even Egypt is limited in its ability to pressure Israel or the United States. Egypt is deeply dependent on US aid and despite calls from within the Mubarak government and the Egyptian Parliament to unilaterally do away with US aid, at the present time there seems little chance that this will occur. The Arab world has frozen contacts with Israel, yet this too has little influence in changing the course of events.

The US seems unable or unwilling to use its influence with the sides to get the peace process back on course. More and more, Dennis Ross is being perceived by the Palestinians as an agent of Israel in Washington. Mr. Ross has allegedly proposed to the Palestinians that the US will get an Israeli agreement to freeze Har Homa-Jabel Abu Ghuneim if the Palestinians recognize the other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. If this is true, it shows a complete lack of awareness and sensitivity to the entire issue of settlements and the Palestinians' position regarding the future of the territories. Instead of removing one issue which blocks final status talks in the spirit of the agreement, the alleged proposal puts a final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. Most Palestinians believe that this was Ross's latest proposal and most Palestinians believe that Oslo is dead.

Last week General Shlomo Yanai, the head of the IDF's Southern Command, said that the next time violence erupts his troops would be given clear "shoot-to-kill" orders against the Palestinian police. It has been reported that Israel has thousands of troops amassed in Gaza now in preparation for those events. Palestinians have reportedly been building underground bunkers and installments in case of Israeli entry into Areas "A" under Palestinian control. Palestinian and Israeli soldiers who are still participating in joint patrols are increasingly suspicious of each other and violence on the ground could spontaneously break out at any time.

In light of this situation, as Israel is "sitting tight" and the Palestinians are trying (unsuccessfully) to get the international community to make sanctions against Israel, the United States has a number of choices to consider.

One possibility is to continue, as is being done now, with low level, low intensity efforts to find some kind of procedural breakthrough aimed at getting the sides to the table. The latest version of this is "let's sit down and talk about why we're not talking." In my view, this will lead no where and only plays into Mr. Netanyahu's hands who doesn't really want to move forward anyhow.

Another US option would be to say, "as long as the parties don't want to progress there is nothing to do, so you have the telephone number of the White House and the State Department - call us when you're ready." This strategy also plays into the hands of those who do not wish to advance and opens the doors to the extremists and the enemies of peace. It also paints a picture of the US administration as being weak and ineffectual in international affairs. The US could strengthen this strategy by dissociating itself from the Israeli settlement policy and letting it be known that "while the US supports Israel and its defensive needs, the US has strong reservations about Israel's settlement policies that are an obstacle to peace and until there is a change in the status quo, Mr. Netanyahu is not a welcome guest in the White House or the State Department." This would be the final isolation of Mr. Netanyahu and his government. This kind of step would gain credibility for the United States in the region as a fair mediator. It would strengthen the position of the United States as a leader in solving regional conflicts. It would not jeopardize Israel's security because strategically Israel remains a strong ally of the United States. It would, though, send a clear message to the Israeli public that the United States means business and that it is more serious about the peace process than the Israeli government itself.

Another possible strategy for the US would be to upgrade and intensify the US position in the peace process. Perhaps it is time for higher level intervention. Perhaps the time has come for Mrs. Albright to say, "I'll teach those guys a lesson - I'll show them who they're doing business with." This is the strategy that could be the most effective, if it was serious. Precious time is being wasted and unnecessary suffering has already befallen more victims and God only knows how much more suffering is ahead of us. A strong US position, such as the one taken by Bush-Baker after the Gulf War could be effective in impressing upon the sides the urgent need to make the tough decisions now which will have to be made in the future anyway. This strategy requires determination and full agreement between the White House and the State Department. It requires the political will of the President and his clear commitment to place the full weight of the power of his office behind his decision to conclude a full peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

Of the three options presented above, the option of waiting for the sides to act is clearly the worst and I hope and pray that the US will not adopt this policy. The next worst option is the one that is being pursued today - trying to use low level, low intensity mediation to find procedural mechanisms to get the sides to talk. This option will not lead to any real progress. It only wastes time and adds to growing frustration and continual loss of hope.

Who wins and who loses?

Right now, everyone but Netanyahu is losing.

The US is losing because it is seen as weak.

Arafat is the biggest loser because he can't deliver anything to his public and his public has lost faith in him as a leader.

The Jordanians are losing because peace cannot continue to exist between Israel and Jordan without progress with the Palestinians, this is a direct threat on the continued reign of the Hashimite monarchy.

Mubarak and Egypt lose because while they can rally the support of the Arab world against Israel, they are not completely free actors. Egypt is more limited than Assad and Syria who are not dependent on US aid.

The Iranians win because extremism and fundamentalism prevail when reason and logic wane. It Iraqis are winners because anytime the US fails in achieving strategic aims in the region Saddam is happy.

The people of Israel both win and lose at the same time because Israelis want peace but don't want to pay the price. Until there is recognition in Israel that "you can't eat the cake and keep it at the same time", peace will not be achieved.

We are at the point where I believe this is our last chance. If we fail to exploit the little time left for this peace process, another opportunity may not return for a very long time and certainly after much time mean after much bloodshed and suffering.

The Oslo process may be dead. It may require that a new initiative be developed which will bring us beyond Oslo. The issues are becoming more complex rather simpler. Final status talks may require taking a more regional perspective toward decisions that must be made. Perhaps the launching of a new initiative based upon a regional approach involving the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan could help to add more confidence to the process. This is not aimed at removing the chance of Palestinian sovereignty but strengthening that option by linking it to a regional framework that could provide better solutions for issues of security and economic development. Many of the final status issues may be easier to confront in a trilateral framework than in a bilateral one. Arrangements between Jordan and Palestine and between Jordan and Israel will be integral parts of final status arrangements between the Palestinians and Israel so why not try to bring the Jordanians in now. Adopting this kind of an approach could potentially provide a new life for the peace process.

In conclusion, if in the present situation only Netanyahu is winning there is clearly something wrong with the strategy that is being played out. If only Netanyahu is winning the time has come to reevaluate and change course.

The United States must face up to the responsibility that it took upon itself that it launched the peace process.

If the United States is to remain credible as the leader of the world, it cannot continue and play the game according to the rules set out by only one of the sides.