All Writings
December 11, 1988

Background to a New Course

December 1988 will doubtless be remembered as a point of departure in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in particular. How the leadership of the Palestinians, Israelis, and key Arab states proceeds from this point in time and how much creativity and courage all sides in the conflict project will determine whether or not peace will finally be achieved.

PLO chief Yasir Arafat's recognition of Israel's right to exist, his renunciation of violence in all forms, and his acceptance of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, as inexplicit as they may be, constitute a major turning point in relations between the two sides. Arafat's acceptance of these conditions did not just occur overnight in Algiers or Geneva. The road that Arafat had to traverse over 25 years was long and treacherous. It took five wars and tens of thousands of casualties to finally force Arafat to conclude that only peace with Israel can secure the Palestinians' national aspirations.

Although there are still a number of Syrian-backed factions within the PLO that harbor ill designs against Israel, one critical factor has emerged: during the last 25 years, the PLO has evolved, very gradually and very painfully, from a loose alliance of terrorist organizations into a political movement. The transformation was both difficult and costly in human and material resources. However, after decades of advocating the destruction of Israel, the PLO finally conceded Israel's existence because the alternative would have been nothing less than self-inflicted destruction, dislocation, and helplessness.

There are a number of factors that contributed to the PLO's move to its present political posture. Those Israelis who dismiss the PLO's recent diplomatic overtures as merely a "monumental effort in public deception" are willfully blinding themselves not only to the PLO's political evolution but to the development of a whole new set of political, military, and strategic conditions that have dramatically changed the political landscape of the Middle East.

The issue of a two-state solution is no longer a rhetorical one. If the PLO adheres to its public declarations regarding Israel's right to exist and the renunciation of terrorism, Israel and the U.S. will eventually find it difficult not to meet Palestinian demands. Moreover, the realities on the ground and the international climate will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for either Israel or the PLO to abandon diplomatic efforts.

The question that remains is whether the leadership of all countries concerned will rise to the occasion and seize the opportunity to translate the newly emerging consensus for peaceful coexistence into real peace. There are at least five main factors which not only provide the rationale behind the PLO's "change of heart," but suggest why it is unlikely that the PLO would readily change course during the search for a settlement.

Israeli Military Power

Military and political experts share the view that Israel's formidable military capacity has had a profound impact on the evolution of the PLO and the changing attitude of the Arab states toward Israel. Despite the Arab states' overwhelming numerical military superiority, which includes every category of weapons systems, Israel has maintained a tactical and strategical superiority that cannot be overcome by sheer numbers of soldiers or weapons.

If the repeated humiliation of the Arab states' armies in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 was not enough, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in the stunning defeat of the PLO, shattered any glimmer of hope among the PLO's rank and file that Israel could ever be defeated militarily. Despite the existence of extreme factions within and outside the PLO which still believe in the military option, the Palestinians, by and large, have resigned themselves to Israel's military preponderance and therefore, to its permanent presence.

One other critical factor related to the military equation is the United States' commitment to Israel's security. For many years, the Arab states attempted to drive a wedge between Israel and America. Realizing U.S. strategic and economic interests in the Middle East, the Arab states–particularly Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states–have tried in vain to lure or force the U.S. away from Israel. In the course of years, the U.S. made it clear in words and in deeds that it would not sacrifice Israel's interest to gain the Arab states' favor. Moreover, the U.S. finds no inconsistencies between maintaining Israel's security and developing friendship and close military and economic ties with moderate Arab states.

The fact that the U.S., under both Republicans and Democrats, consistently maintained its financial and military support for Israel provided a clear picture of where the U.S. stood. Moreover, U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation has further cemented the special relationship between the two countries. The U.S. commitment to Israel's security has thus become a permanent feature of American military and political strategy in the Middle East, one that no Arab country, let alone the PLO, could minimize or ignore.

This, of course, helps explain why the PLO desperately sought U.S. recognition and why they felt triumphant when the U.S. finally, after 13 years, accepted it as a negotiating partner in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The prevailing feeling among the PLO leadership is that the U.S. is the only country capable of exerting leverage over Israel and therefore, it is only the U.S. that can "persuade" Israel to make the necessary concessions. Regardless of the accuracy of the PLO's assessment of U.S. influence over Israel, the U.S. decision to begin a dialogue with the PLO is destined to have a profound impact on the future of the Arab-Israeli confrontation.

The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty

There is a clear consensus among most political observers that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was a major catalyst behind Middle East events of the 1980's. Although many Palestinians were extremely slow to admit it, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had a dramatic cumulative psychological impact on the Palestinian attitude toward Israel. Since 1979, many Palestinians and some Arab states, in particular Syria, Iraq, Libya, and North Yemen, have worked diligently to undermine the treaty. Egypt, however, withstood the pressure and although it was ousted from the Arab league, the Egyptians, under the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak, stayed the course, believing that in the final analysis, the only viable resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be achieved through negotiations and peace.

Although Egyptian support for the Palestinians was consistent and clear, the Egyptians did not hesitate to subordinate the Palestinian cause to their own national interest and were determined not to allow the PLO to undermine Egyptian-Israeli peace. During the course of the following 10 years, the PLO gradually came to the conclusion that the Egyptian act of peacemaking could not be reversed. Moreover, Jordan, which continues to be the interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians, had long since abandoned the military option, as well. Syria, which was prepared to support the continuation of a tactical military option against Israel and wanted to dominate the PLO, did not enjoy either the military or political leverage to make that option workable.

Thus, Arafat gradually came to the conclusion that by joining the Arab mainstream he stood a far better chance to advance the Palestinian cause. The Arab League conference in Amman in November 1987, vindicated the Egyptian act of peacemaking. Egypt was admitted back into the Arab League. The earlier demand to sever any relationship with Israel as a price for membership was dropped. The Arab countries were allowed to restore their diplomatic relations with Egypt. During the last 12 months, Egypt not only restored diplomatic relations with the rest of the Arab states, but again became the center of political activity in the Arab world and in all likelihood the catalyst behind the next peace offensive.

It was Mubarak who worked very diligently to persuade Arafat to finally adopt a moderate posture. At the same time, Mubarak positioned himself between U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Arafat, ensuring that the PLO leader met all U.S. conditions. The meeting between Mubarak, Hussein, and Arafat in Aqaba in October 1988, clearly signaled the PLO's future fortunes in relation to the rest of the Arab states and its agreement to pursue the political option with Israel.

The Jordanian Connection

For historic, geographic, demographic, strategic, and security reasons Jordan will continue to play a major role in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The fact that Jordan has maintained a peaceful coexistence with Israel since 1967 has had a subtle but profound impact on the Palestinian national movement. The West Bank was never legally Jordanian territory, and Jordan itself was part– albeit a separate part–of the British Mandate of Palestine until it became independent in 1946.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Jordan occupied the West Bank, and in 1951, officially annexed it by declaring Jordan's sovereignty over these territories. Since the rest of the Arab states and the U.N. did not object or demand the restoration of these territories to other claimants, a fait accompli was successfully achieved. During the following 19 years, the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Jordanians developed very close ties. Because all Palestinians east and west of the Jordan River gained equal civil liberties, they generally acquiesced to a set of conditions which neither suppressed nor encouraged Palestinian nationalism.

Israel's capture of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, drastically altered the picture. Under Israeli rule, Palestinian nationalism assumed a more active posture and evoked an intense debate in regional and international forums. From 1967 to 1977, Israel's Labor Party sought to resolve the Palestinian question through the "Jordanian connection," reasoning that Israel could neither annex these territories (in fear that the subsequent demographic imbalance would obliterate Israel's Jewish character), nor relinquish the West Bank (in fear of the possible creation of a Palestinian state committed to Israel's destruction). As a result, the idea of a territorial compromise with Jordan gained strength with Israel's ruling Labor circles.

Between 1967 and 1977, Jordan maintained an unofficial peace with Israel. King Hussein was prepared, at least in principle, to accept limited territorial concessions, provided that most of the occupied territories be reincorporated eventually into Jordan proper. What finally undermined the Israeli-Jordanian dialogue was the growing strength of the Palestinian national movement.

In 1974, two international statements were issued which, in effect, dealt the Jordanian option a near-fatal blow: (1) In April 1974, in Rabat, Morocco, the Arab League passed a resolution which proclaimed that the PLO was to inherit all territories evacuated by Israel, and (2) in October 1974, U.N. Resolution 2310, which recognized the PLO as the "sole representative" of the Palestinian people, was passed, the two resolutions had an unintended consequence (at least for the Arabs): by denying Hussein the incentive to continue the struggle to regain the West Bank, they effectively distanced Jordan from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Hussein's refusal to enter the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations under U.S. auspices, or even endorse the Camp David accords, was based on his assumption that Jordan had little to gain from the enterprise. Hussein also calculated, at the time, that if Jordan entered the negotiations prematurely, it would forfeit its "right" to regain control over the West Bank. Moreover, the Palestinians, led by the PLO, were committed to political independence, having rejected (at least temporarily ) any connection with Jordan. They could hardly forget "Black September," the bloody 1970 Jordanian civil war which left more than 10,000 Palestinians dead and drove 150,000 refugees into Lebanon.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's 1979 autonomy plan offered no new prospects for Jordan. In fact, Begin rejected the principle of territorial compromise–like his predecessors, he viewed Jordan as a Palestinian state already in the being. What role could Jordan play then under such circumstances? Simply put, Jordan stood to gain nothing unless the Palestinians and Israelis first recognized each other's right to exist and a mutual understanding was reached regarding the future political and administrative status of the West Bank. Only then could the Jordanian connection be revived, as the Camp David Accords themselves envisioned.

Since the accords were signed the fortunes of the PLO and, subsequently, those of the Palestinians have changed dramatically. The 1982 PLO defeat in Lebanon at the hands of the Israelis was also, at least temporarily, a personal setback for Arafat. Although he was still recognized as the head of the PLO, his personal prestige and political base were seriously eroded. Having been accused by the Syrian-backed radical terrorist groups of showing moderation toward Israel, Arafat once again became dependent on the political support and good will of moderate Arab countries.

By the end of 1983, Hussein was regarded as the only major Arab player with any leverage over the future of the Palestinians, although his enhanced role did not grant him a complete mandate to negotiate on their behalf. Once again, Hussein was able to position himself at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian equation, particularly if peace, and not war, emerged as an alternative. Moreover, the open–though unsuccessful–negotiations in the winter of 1985 between Hussein and Arafat regarding talks with Israel further strengthened Hussein's hand.

Indeed, it was Hussein who called for an international peace conference, something to which the PLO could not object since it had itself called for one earlier. What is significant about the Hussein-Arafat talks is that it was the first time that the PLO engaged in political discussions regarding peace with Israel. From that point on, the PLO, in principle, abandoned the military option and began to pursue the political option.

The fact that the Arab League summit held in Amman in November 1987, hardly discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Palestinian issue, suggested for the first time that the Arab states, by their actions, openly admitted that "… pride and passion aside, the Arabs' conflict with Israel is essentially peripheral to most of them." By focusing their attention on the threat posed by Iran's revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab leaders, in effect, endorsed Hussein's central role in future negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians. While the summit did pass a resolution that implied the PLO's right to a separate delegation at a Middle East conference, it also left the door open to a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and kept intact Hussein's key role in convening such a conference.

The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which erupted on December 9, 1987, one month after the Amman conference, introduced a new and vital element into the Jordanian-PLO political relationship. The leadership of the uprising demanded action from the PLO, making the Palestinian national claim the core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, the leadership of the uprising was able, in a matter of six months, to define the Arab-Israeli conflict and reduce it to its basic element–Palestinian national aspirations for a homeland. Arafat, sensing an historic opportunity to project himself into the center of the Palestinian political agenda emerging from the territories, seized the opportunity.

The Algiers conference of Arab heads of state in June 1988, convened at the strong urging of the PLO, changed much of the thrust and intent of the earlier resolution adopted in Amman in November 1987. The Arab League reaffirmed the PLO's role as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO was given direct and exclusive responsibility for the uprising.

Totally frustrated with the Israelis, the PLO, and the uprising, King Hussein finally decided on July 31, to disengage Jordan from its administrative and legal ties to the West Bank and Gaza. Thus with one stroke the King gave the PLO the final push into the political equation, forced Israel to rethink its options and maneuvered the U.S. into reconsidering its relationship to the PLO and to the entire peace process.

Terrorism Runs its Course

The international community's changing attitude toward terrorism, an attitude which now leads to condemnation of terrorist activity regardless of the "legitimacy" of the causes being pursued, was another important factor that contributed to the PLO's evolution. Historically, and of necessity, terrorism cannot be employed simply as an end in itself. Moreover, repeated indiscriminate acts of terrorism tend to be counterproductive–they lead to antipathy for the terrorist rather than sympathy for his cause.

Between 1974 and 1982, the PLO and its splinter surrogates intensified the export of terrorist activities to the West. They hoped to attract further attention to the Palestinian cause and to make up for their failure to terrorize Israel itself. However, effective Israeli counter-terrorism measures, coupled with a cooperative (though belated) Western effort to meet the common threat of terrorism, compelled the PLO to find other ways of dealing with Israel. At first the international community, especially Western Europe, absorbed the terrorist blows one by one without having the courage to take collective anti-terrorist measures. Each country–Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain–tried to deal with the problem by itself, as if the terrorism each faced was an isolated phenomenon, unconnected to that suffered by its neighbors and the rest of the world. It was not until 1985 that the Western countries finally decided to cooperate and deal with it as a common threat to their civil order.

Ironically, and paradoxically, continued terrorist activities against European and American targets also dangerously compromised the Palestinian cause and made a mockery of the PLO's "national aspirations." Western Europe and the United States finally agreed that terrorism had to be stopped regardless of its origin. The orgy of violence seemed to be both more common and more tragic: the brutal killing of the American sailor aboard the hijacked TWA plane in Lebanon; the murder of Leon Klinghoffer on the hijacked Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauw, the bombing of the discotheque in West Germany; the multiple kidnappings of Americans and Europeans; the assassinations of diplomats in England, France, Germany; and the disastrous bombing of the American barracks in Lebanon in which 241 American Marines were killed. In the end, as the carnage increased, it became more and more difficult to see the connection between the slaughter of innocents and the Palestinian cause.

Such indiscriminate use of terror has almost completely alienated not only those who were directly affected by it, but also the PLO's best friends. Even the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies found they could no longer condone terrorism as a means to aid the Palestinian cause.

The predicament of the Palestinians, and especially that of the PLO, was how to reconcile the difference between the various radical factions that still believed in the military option and growing moderate factions that realized the futility of continued violence and were now committed to a political solution. While an ideological and leadership schism continued to haunt the PLO one fact became clear: in the course of the last decade, the PLO has been compelled to transform itself from a loose alliance of armed groups emphasizing the use of violence into a quasi-political movement largely pursuing its aims through diplomatic rather than terroristic means.

It also became clear that the international community's changing attitudes toward terrorism has helped to force this new posture upon the organization. This, however, does not mean that we have seen the end of terrorism. It means that the PLO has come to the conclusion that terrorism can no longer be employed as a tool to promote the national aspirations of Palestinians. Thus, Arafat's renunciation of terrorism in all forms was, in fact, nothing more than acceptance of the inevitable, unless the PLO was prepared to lose all the ground it had gained as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian struggle for national identity. All this, of course, doesn't mean that all Middle East generated terrorism has run its course, as the horror of Pan Am flight 103 on December 21, 1988 reminds us.

The Uprising

As the PLO began in earnest to change both its image and its operational code in 1987 and early 1988, it was forced once again to respond to events over which it had little or no control, but which could deeply affect its prospects and actions. In November 1987, the Amman Arab League summit gave King Hussein still greater leverage over Palestinian participation in a future peace conference, underlining both the PLO's renewed dependence on its Arab hosts and patrons, and the failure of its campaign of terrorism.

In December 1987, the uprising of Arab youth in Gaza and the West Bank, supported by nearly all of Israel's Arab citizens, forcefully reminded the PLO that ultimately it was the Palestinians in Israel and the administered territories–not those on the outside–who would decide the fate of the Palestinian community as a whole. Though there was some evidence of limited outside instigation involved in the riots in Gaza and the West Bank, what happened clearly took place against the advice of, and despite, the counsels of restraint by local Palestinian elders and their political organizations. The young Palestinians certainly shouted PLO slogans as they threw rocks and gasoline bombs at the Israeli soldiers, but it is obvious that they–the young Palestinians–represent a new force over which the PLO has only limited control. Among the messages sent by the Palestinians' continued cycle of riots was undoubtedly one to the PLO itself: take the initiative in finding a solution to the Palestinian problem, or lose your ability to affect events in the Palestinian homeland.

The PLO's insistence on assuming responsibility for the future course of the uprising provided a crucial turning point in the history of the evolution of the PLO. Inasmuch as it needs a critical vehicle through which it can complete its transformation from a terrorist organization into a political movement, the uprising provided the perfect medium. As an indigenous revolt against the occupier, the Palestinians in the territories provided the PLO with an opportunity and a challenge.

Arafat was quick to capitalize on the development of these events: (a) Jordan's decision to disengage administrative and legal ties to the territories, an action which thrust the PLO into the heart of the uprising, and (b) Israel's inability–though by choice–to squelch the uprising through the use of massive force. As a result, the Israelis were left with the options of either tolerating continued civil disorder and constant defiance of authority or a Palestinian massacre. Israel opted for the former. Thus, the uprising gave the PLO an historic opportunity to claim a victory and facilitated Arafat's next political move in Algiers, followed by his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva.

International Pressure

Mounting international pressure on both Israel and the Arab states, including the PLO, finally began to yield definitve results. Beause the U.S. and the Soviet Union do not see eye to eye on many regional conflicts and because they continue their rivalry for influence in many regions, the countries involved are generally compelled to follow the political and ideological line of their benefactors. However, since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power East-West relations have taken on a more conciliatory and cooperative tone. Consequently, the political climate in many regions also began to respond to the changing mood in Washington and Moscow.

The end of the war between Iraq and Iran, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the cessation of hostilities in Angola and the growing manifestation of cooperation between the two superpowers provided a clear sense of departure from the period of the cold war. Obviously the Middle East was also subject to the influence of these manifestations of cooperation and the strong desire to end the bloodshed between the two peoples.

It is also clear that the international community, particularly the U.S. and the Soviet Union, has grown weary of the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially since there is not much that can be changed in the conflict itself to provide either superpower further strategic or political leverage. Gorbachev felt strongly, however, that for the Soviet Union to play a constructive role it had to pressure the PLO to abandon the military option, seek a dialogue with the U.S. and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Moreover, because of the uprising there is a growing consensus that the Arab-Israeli crisis has finally been reduced to its true component: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international community has long held the view that both Israel and the Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination.

What is important to note here is that from the international viewpoint, Israel's existence, established on the basis of the 1967 borders, must not negate the Palestinians' right to their own homeland and the creation of a Palestinian state must not be at the expense of Israel. The demographic, socio-economic, and geographic conditions on the ground support these propositions. As a result, even the U.S. finally came to the conclusion–the Reagan peace plan of 1982 which was reaffirmed in Geneva in December 1988–that Israel must withdraw from the bulk of territories captured in 1967 as a prerequisite to a settlement of the Palestinian people. As the PLO was moving closer to accepting U.N. Resolution 242, Western European countries, such as Britain, France, West Germany, and, of course, Sweden, used their influence to convince the PLO to yield to the American conditions. They, in turn, urged the U.S. to accept as adequate Arafat's statements regarding U.N. Resolution 242, the renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel.

Although the U.S. does not officially support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, it seems that eventually the U.S. too may come to the conclusion which predicates peace on coexistence under separate political authority or as it is termed, the two-state solution.

Long Move Toward Moderation

The U.S.'s decision to begin a diplomatic dialogue with the PLO may have "shocked and dismayed" the Israelis but it has finally put the Arab-Israeli conflict in its proper context. For 13 years, the U.S. lived up to its commitment not to recognize or negotiate with the PLO unless it explicitly accepted Israel's right to exist, renounced all forms of terrorism and accepted U.N. Resolutions 242 and 331. Arafat took 13 years to finally accept U.S. conditions. Whether or not a degree of ambiguity remained in Arafat's statement, what is important here is that the PLO has finally made the long expected public move toward moderation in which the acceptance of Israel's right to exist is central.

As a major power with high stakes in the Middle East, the U.S. had to seize the opportunity when it was presented. It was U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz who courageously denied Arafat an entry visa to the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly's convocation in Geneva. Yet, when it came time for a shift in policy, it took just as much courage to say yes to Arafat and earnestly begin a dialogue on peace.

The PLO must now translate its renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of Israel's right to exist into deeds. A growing number of Israelis (55% according to the latest poll) have come to the conclusion that the PLO must eventually be a party to any peace negotiations; there will be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless the PLO and Israel talk to each other and accept each other as legitimate parties to the dialogue.

Now that the PLO has accepted Israel's right to exist–at least on the surface–it behooves the new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to put the PLO to the test. Israel understandably feels suspicious and concerned; indeed, the PLO may or may not harbor future designs against Israel. Israel, however, cannot simply reject a dialogue with the PLO on the basis of old assumptions and suspicions. The PLO's intentions can be judged only through face-to-face negotiations. Israel, with its military preponderance and unshakable U.S. support, could certainly take this limited risk.

Israel, in cooperation with the U.S., should define acceptable parameters for negotiations with the PLO. At the same time, the U.S. will be in a position through its bilateral dialogue with the PLO to discern where, in fact, the PLO stands on various points and how much leverage there is between its maximalist position and what it will settle for. The U.S., as a major power and Israel's closest ally, is in a unique position to play an effective role in the peace process.

President Reagan's decision to open a dialogue with the PLO was timely and critical. The new Bush administration, which undoubtedly will remain committed to Israel's security and well-being, will want to take advantage of the recent dramatic developments and move the troubled Middle East closer to peace. Israel must not–nay cannot–afford to be perceived as the only obstacle to peace and thus isolate itself from the process. Prime Minister Shamir may yet emerge as the peacemaker. As 1988 came to a close, Jews, Arabs, and Christians looked up to Jerusalem and prayed for peace. There is a reason to be hopeful.