All Writings
November 11, 1990

Time for Serious Bilateral Talks

The U.S.-Israel relationship is likely to get much worse before it gets any better. Both the Bush administration and the Shamir government, it seems, have added to the present erosion – only together could they prevent further damage from seriously undermining both the prospects for peace and their long alliance.

A number of basic differences separate the two countries: a) different convictions regarding the extent of territorial concessions and how that might shape the final outcome; b) different perceptions in relation to the impact of an Arab-Israeli peace on future regional stability; c) different Israeli interest in the pursuit of its national security against the pursuit of oil and the preservation of economic and strategic interests by the U.S.; d) different assessments of the present and future U.S.-Israel relationship in the context of the newly emerging Middle Eastern order, and finally; e) different commitments to the peace process in terms of pace and procedures which have contributed significantly to the present strain in their relationshio.

Procedural matters have serious implications for the Israelis: the question of venue is not just a matter of place or convenience; conducting the negotiations alternatively in Israel and in the Arab states implies mutual recognition of the reality of the negotiating states The U.S. is wrong in assuming that the end justifies any means. For if the ultimate objective of the U.S. is peace of reconciliation, which it must be, the recognition of the very reality with which the Arabs must reconcile themelves becomes a prerequisite to the whole process. Arab recongnition of Israel is the single most critical principle the Israelis seek to which the Bush administration must pay more than lip service.

On the question of the negotiating pace the U.S. feels strongly that time is of the essence and that unless there is a discernible progress the peace momentum may wither and dissipate. For Mr. Shamir, who feels more sanquine about the whole process, time is working in Israel's favor. For every day that passes more facts are created on the ground – more settlements, and more Soviet Jews are immigrating to Israel and therefore, more pressure will be exerted on the Arabs to be more conciliatory. There is, of course, a political price to be paid for foot dragging; Mr. Shamir, however, has a delicate balancing act to perform to keep his coalition together, especially the extreme right wing of his own political party who are very suspicious of the peace process and of the Bush administration.

Certainly not all Israelis agree with their government's approach to the negotiations, however most Israelis resent being "ordered to appear" on a given date even by their indispensable benefactor. Israeli officials with whom I spoke told me bluntly that while they fully appreciate the U.S.'s role and good intent, the Arab-Israeli conflict can best be served when the Arab states and the Palestinians realize that there is a limit to the pressure that the U.S. can exert on Israel. The Arab states stand on the receiving line – when there is a delay in delivery they look to the U.S. to bring pressure to bear on Israel to induce results. The U.S. has inadvertently or deliberately helped to create this Arab perception. Israel has to draw the line, Israeli officials insist, better sooner than later.

The U.S. as an "honest broker" or as a catalyst must have at least an idea where it wants to lead the parties. If it does, it cannot keep these ideas to itself and expect the Israelis or the Arabs, for that matter, to comply without question. It is that lack of sensitivity which has prompted the Israeli reaction to the U.S.'s latest decision about the venue which provides only a prelude to an Israeli future negotiating attitude.

Although the U.S. may try to appear the honest broker, it is far from being one. The U.S. has, to a great extent, dictated the rules of the negotiating process, decided on the venue, even suggested language for the next round of discussions in Washington. Why not find some modus-vivendi with Israel on issues deemed so critical to the country's national psychology and security?

Neither Israel nor the U.S. should take each other for granted. To stop the current slide in their relationship from worsening both governments must conduct substantive bilateral negotiations that cover a host of issues of grave concern to Israel and of critical importance to the U.S.

Although it is not likely that the U.S. and Israel could settle all of their differences, it also should not be necessary to do so. Both countries must reach, at a minimum, a better understanding in connection with procedural matters, as well as developing areas of agreement that the U.S. could promote to the Arab States. President Bush and Prime Minister Shamir must be guided by their countries' traditional friendship and shared values to insure a durable peace of reconciliation.