JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758


The Moment of Truth

By Amos Perlmutter

PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair of Great Britain, the president of the European Union, after his success in the Irish negotiations hopes to be as successful with the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Taking a different road from his undiplomatic and radical Left foreign minister, Robin Cook, he has succeeded where the latter utterly failed.

Will the forthcoming summit on May 4 between Netanyahu and Arafat, who will, with Madeline Albright's endorsement, separately meet with Prime Minister Blair endorsed be successful? I have great doubts of any serious breakthrough, unless, of course, the American president is willing to personally intervene.

The drifting away of Israelis and Palestinians from Oslo presents a fundamental challenge to the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Are they seriously dedicated to the fulfillment of Oslo? If not, which course will the parties take, and what can be expected from the postponement or rejection of the Oslo principles. The negotiations mediated by the United States between the Israelis and Palestinians are not really over percentages of Israeli land withdrawal and territorial gain for the Palestinians. Nor is it a military security question for Israel.

The foremost defense analyst in Israel, Zeev Schiff of Ha'aretz, has put forward the issue: Do both the Israelis and Palestinians intend to advance toward the final stages of peace or not? Is the freeze caused by the stalling of the parties a tactical matter, or is it a serious strategic departure by both from Oslo? If Binyamin Netanyahu's government doesn't believe that peace can be achieved with the Palestinians except on his terms and that the original treaties of Oslo are void, then the IDF should discourage any disengagement, redeployment or surrender of an inch of Palestinian territory. If, however, the government intends to achieve peace on the basis of compromise with the Palestinians, then percentages, single or double digit, are irrelevant. If the Palestinian Authority intends to achieve concessions by means of violence and terrorist methods, by means of employing international and American public pressure, then there will be no independent Palestinian state by the end of the century. The moment of truth has arrived. Are the parties ready to make strategic concessions and bring an end to the fifty years of conflict between Arabs and Israelis? The choices for both parties must be made clear.

The optimists argue that the "squabbles" stem from the parties' negotiating strategy to accumulate as much political and territorial gain as possible before the final negotiations. If the pessimist argument prevails, i.e. that neither party has political intentions to fulfill Oslo, then the American strategy in the Israel-Palestinian conflict must make a distinctly different posture. What is relevant now is the political will of the parties. If they mean to achieve peace by compromise, then the employment of America's good offices in the negotiations would be sufficient.

But if neither has political or electoral will to come to terms on the basis of Oslo, then an American intervention becomes imperative. The parties approach the final stages of negotiations with maximum demands and minimum concessions, which will lead to paralysis. To overcome their lack of political will to negotiate on their own, the U.S. should adopt a new negotiating style.

What is necessary is an imaginative and bold American negotiating strategy. Secretary of State Madeline Albright must abandon the present style of diplomacy that leaves the United States to the mercy of the self-interest of both Israelis and Palestinians. This is not a strategy, nor is it a wise foreign policy. Rather than sending Ambassador Ross for endless and fruitless trips to the Middle East, President Clinton must establish a new strategy for productive negotiations.

The president is faced with two choices to break the logjam and to overcome the obstacles both parties have created to avoid making the necessary and painful existential decisions. The first choice, the penultimate, is to lean on Israel with an "American plan" which is not a viable electoral, political or diplomatic choice for the president. This option has already been rejected by the Netanyahu government as a coercive effort dictating an American idea for the security of Israel.

The most reasonable would be the second choice, that President Clinton adopt a Camp David-style pressure cooker to seal Oslo. This structure of negotiations would be designed to impose equal pressure on the parties to make the required political decisions to fulfill Oslo removed from the heavy domestic pressures they both face at home. Camp David-style pressure cooker negotiations are needed in the absence of the political will or electoral power of either party to make a peace on the basis of compromise.

Before Camp David, Begin and Sadat principally agreed to achieve peace. Without Camp David and an American president's direct role it would not have been achieved. The same is true of Oslo. The parties have declared their commitment to peace, and now it is within the power of an American president, if he so desires, to help achieve this goal. The era of emissaries must come to an end.


1/26/98: A new alliance brightens the Middle Eastern outlook
1/1/98: Saddam's predictable defiance

JWR contributor Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and the editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

©1998, Amos Perlmutter