The Israel-PLO Accord is Dead

Amos Perlmutter. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 3, May 1995.

The Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the White House on September 13, 1993, is for all intents and purposes dead. The repeated atrocities by Palestinian suicide bombers, including the grisly death of 20 Israeli soldiers in Beit Lid and the murder of 22 civilians in downtown Tel Aviv, serve only as dramatic illustrations of just how ineffectual the so-called Oslo accord has become. As it stands now, the whole Oslo process is unraveling, jolted by a wave of fundamentalist terrorism that deepens the prevailing pessimism among even dovish Israelis.

The original treaty—not to mention the high hopes behind it—has been so altered by both the PLO and Israel as to have become barely recognizable. Israeli plans for limited but continued West Bank settlement caused an international outcry after the expansion of Efrat, a settlement near Bethlehem. Israel has so far refused to withdraw the Israeli Defense Forces from the West Bank’s major cities before the Palestinian elections for their autonomy authority, which should have been held months ago. Fifty-nine Israelis have been killed in the past nine months by suicide bombers from Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. For their part, many Palestinians bitterly complain that Israel has not given up anything and call the IDF’s withdrawal from the turbulent Gaza Strip a blessing for Israel. They excoriate Israel’s Labor-led government for refusing even to clear the handful of militant settlers out of downtown Hebron after one American-born fanatic massacred 29 worshipers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque. The Declaration of Principles has increasingly become a document that reflects neither reality nor probability.

This is not what the handful of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had in mind when they secretly hammered out the accord in Norway. The pact called for an IDF withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, which would then fall under the civilian control of a Palestinian autonomy government headed by PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. All Israeli settlements would remain intact, and the new Palestinian police would work together with the IDF to guarantee internal security and fight Hamas. In nine months, the IDF would redeploy throughout the remainder of the West Bank to prepare for Palestinian elections and the extension of autonomy to the entire West Bank. The most contentious issues—settlements, refugees, borders, Palestinian statehood, security, and Jerusalem—would be deferred until another set of talks, scheduled to begin in the third year of autonomy. The Declaration of Principles itself was accompanied by mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, once the bitterest of enemies, and by a commitment from Arafat to end terrorism and remove calls for Israel’s destruction from the PLO charter. Taken together, the Oslo accords represented a bold bid for a lasting reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, and promised to usher in a new era of regional peace.

The debate over Oslo’s provisions, however, has divided the Palestinian nationalist movement. Those Palestinians who support Oslo do not trust Israel. On the other hand, the rejectionist front believes that this is no time for diplomacy, and that the military struggle with Israel must be continued until all of Palestine—including pre-1967 Israel—is liberated. Arafat, once the symbol of Palestinian nationalism, has become tarnished goods.

The Oslo accord is also being met with increased doubt and hostility in Israel. Immediately after the dramatic White House handshake, Israel was ready to return most of the territories it took during the Six Day War of 1967 in exchange for real peace. But the Israeli public is now deeply suspicious of the aims of the Palestinian nationalist movement. The only person who still seriously believes in Oslo is its adoptive father, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Polls demonstrate the rowing strength of the rightist Likud, which promises a harsh anti-terror campaign and rejects territorial compromise. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu’s fortunes are rising not because a Likud government would be better for Israel but because the nation’s trust in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has seriously deteriorated.

Oslo will probably linger on like a comatose patient on life support. But as it stands today, this will be a long, tortuous, and unsatisfactory process, carried on amid the din of Hamas terrorism and the building of additional Jewish settlements. Ultimately, the demise of Oslo threatens to topple the Rabin government and render Arafat obsolete. The Middle East peace process may stager on, but the Oslo accord will never yield its desired fruit.

Eyeless in Gaza

Oslo’s flaws have many roots, including weak and inconsistent PLO leadership, conflicting strategies, and faulty negotiating techniques. First, the continued weakening of the peace process is partly owed to the absence of authoritative and authentic Palestinian leadership. Arafat has isolated himself in his office in Gaza City and has scarcely set foot in Jericho since his arrival in the self-rule zones. He long ago lost the support of Palestinian intellectuals in the territories. Today, however, just about everyone is opposed to him in one way or another. In his recent book, even Abu Mazen, the chief PLO negotiator in Oslo, bitterly criticizes Arafat. Worse, a generation of radical Palestinian nationalists and Muslim fundamentalists has emerged in the occupied territories to violently oppose Oslo, demanding the destruction of Israel proper and an end to land-for-peace diplomacy.

Second, Israel and the PLO approached the negotiations from completely different angles. Coming to terms with the Palestinians was the basis for Rabin’s winning 1992 election platform, but Labor designed its solutions and drew up its maps in a political and intellectual vacuum. The problem was that the Israeli negotiators designed the parameters of the process around Israeli needs and demands. On timing, Israel wanted the process to evolve in stages; on space, the final decisions on boundaries, settlements, and Jerusalem would be made later; and on the prickly issue of Palestinian sovereignty—well, that would be dealt with last, because the whole issue was a serious electoral danger to Rabin.

The Palestinian agenda, on the other hand, was almost exactly the opposite. On timing, Arafat pushed a sooner-rather-than-later agenda. Arafat has repeatedly proclaimed that every inch of territory evacuated by the Zionist enemy will become Palestinian. On space, the Palestinians would not surrender an inch of territory, which meant no border rectifications, no settlers, and, above all, no united Israeli-dominated Jerusalem. As for statehood, the end of the process would see total Palestinian sovereignty over all of the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem. The differences between the two sides have actually widened since Oslo, given Arafat’s ever more provocative and reckless pronouncements since 1993.

The critical Israeli errors stem from ignoring basic rules of negotiating. Frustrated by the grindingly slow talks with the Palestinian negotiating team in Washington, Peres leaped at the Norway back channel to the PLO. In 1993, however, the leadership of the intifada was more vibrant than the all-but-moribund PLO, which had lost most of its funding from the Persian Gulf states and much of its international credibility by backing Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Nevertheless, after the West Bankers’ negotiating team in Washington presented what seemed to Rabin unacceptable demands regarding settlements and Jerusalem, Rabin chose to accept Arafat’s offer to postpone all of the thorniest issues until later. Arafat’s less threatening offer enticed Rabin to catapult the fading apparatchiks and anachronistic terrorists of the PLO in Tunis back into the foreground.

The entire exercise led to some fundamental errors. Rabin accepted the Oslo concept after Peres and other senior Foreign Ministry diplomats persuaded themselves, and then a reluctant Rabin, that Arafat could deliver The Rabin government acted despite extensive Israeli intelligence showing that Arafat was patently weak, did not represent the new Palestinian generation in the territories, and was in fact commonly despised by the intifada’s veterans.

Moreover, the divisive permanent status issues—Jerusalem, borders, and settlements—have repeatedly come to the forefront. The interim phase also represents an ongoing invitation for Oslo’s foes—extremist Israeli settlers and Palestinian radicals—to try to derail the process, as bloodily as necessary. The trust between the two old adversaries that the interim stage was supposed to build is nowhere in sight. If anything, what confidence existed has been eroded by the interim phase.

The process could collapse completely over the issue of Jerusalem, which is just what Oslo was designed to avert. Israelis will not accept a divided Jerusalem as their capital, nor will the Palestinians accept anything less than the establishment of East Jerusalem as their capital and Palestinian—not Jordanian—control over the city’s Islamic shrines. Both sides continue to thrust Jerusalem onto the agenda, which could make the holy city the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Faisal al-Husseini, one of the West Bank leaders of Arafat’s al-Fatah movement, is clandestinely establishing a Palestinian foreign office and other departments in Jerusalem. The city’s mayor, however, is Ehud Olmert, an opportunistic young Likud leader determined to turn East Jerusalem into an Arab ghetto amid Jewish Jerusalemites. For his part, Arafat time and again speaks of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, while Rabin repeatedly assures Israelis that Jerusalem will remain Israel’s eternal, indivisible capital.

Hamas Rules

In essence, Rabin ended up negotiating with the weakest of all parties among politically active Palestnians: Arafat’s Tunis-based PLO. This approach may have appealed to a former general like Rabin, but it was exactly wrong politically. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as public opinion polls have demonstrated, reject the Oslo process; about 70 percent of the Palestinians either do not trust or totally reject the Oslo process. The floundering Arafat, by contrast, is completely dependent on several security services and spends most of his resources from donor countries shoring up his regime at the expense of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

In contrast to the weak and discredited PLO, Islamic radicalism and the intifada have created a powerful Palestinian-Arab movement that currently represents Palestinian nationalism on the ground. Now that hopes for an independent Palestinian state have been rekindled, the hard-liners are unwilling to accept even an Israeli return to its 1967 borders. Both the intifada radicals and Hamas, as well as their ruthless terrorist wings, continue to speak of Jerusalem as their capital and pamphleteer on the ouster of Jews from historic Palestine. At the point in history where the Palestinians finally might have fulfilled their dream of statehood, an aggressive movement, fueled by small but fanatical militant cells and violently opposed to Oslo, has emerged to challenge the fading Arafat and his PLO.

Today Peres asks us, “What was the alternative to Oslo?” The alternative was to continue to negotiate in Washington with the new generation of Palestinian leaders. There is no question that the alternative would have been difficult and probably would not have yielded immediate results, but the difficulties were not entirely insurmountable. Such talks would have taken time—an electorally inconvenient factor for Rabin and Peres—but the result might have been a more effective and realistic resolution. In effect, Rabin anointed Arafat as the Palestinian people’s leader at exactly the point when he was failing to be that leader. Arafat and Fatah now have no alternative to Oslo, which has come to define the PLO’s center. In February, the PLO Executive Committee resolved to continue implementing Oslo, despite strong outside opposition.

The reinvigorated and radicalized post-Oslo Palestinian nationalist movement, as heir to the intifada, brawls and sprawls and thrashes about with great fury, but lacks significant leaders. The leadership of the movement is talented and well-educated (both in Western secular venues and through traditional Islamic schooling) but lacks standout personalities or anyone as charismatic as the once-legendary Arafat. They represent all the secular classes—lawyers, academics, doctors, journalists, engineers, and members of the media—and are also prominent among the traditional classes of religious preachers and teachers. Ideologically, the new leaders call incessantly for total Arab domination of Palestine and for the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel. They advocate ousting settlers by the use of terror, seek to make Jerusalem the Palestinian capital, and reject any form of democratic government. Their maximalist aspirations carry with them a patriotic, religiously flavored euphoria that can translate into a willingness to die for the cause.

Moreover, Hamas controls the education system in Gaza from kindergarten through high school, as well as the religious schools, mosques, and the Islamic universities in Gaza and Jerusalem. The Islamists’ social services amount to Gaza’s welfare state, providing for the people even as Arafat pampers his security services and bureaucrats. In the West Bank, Hamas could probably gain 30 to 40 percent of the vote for the self-government administration. This is a prospect that chills Arafat enough that he, like the Israeli government, would like to postpone the elections as long as possible.

Like it or not, however, Hamas and the intifada generation represent maximalist but popular aspirations of the Palestinian people. For Israel to salvage something out of the Oslo mess, it should not entirely abandon Arafat, but should help him broaden his base of support to include the intifada generation and the non-terrorist sections of Hamas. After the current wave of suicide bombings, no Israeli electorate will ever accept Hamas as part of a Palestinian negotiating team. But that does not mean that Hamas cannot be indirectly linked to a modified Oslo process. The intifada generation and Hamas—itself a product of the uprising—are popular enough in the West Bank and Gaza that members of anti-Arafat groups will have to be incorporated into the administration of any Palestinian state. Internal elections within Fatah itself would elevate a young, new leadership of intifada veterans. If he wants to survive politically, Arafat will have to appoint individual members of Hamas to various posts in his administration. The West Bank cannot be run by the Palestinian police, an estimated 15,000, and Arafat’s security services. But it is not, not should it be, Israel’s place to impose the widening of his administration on Arafat. Such a move would only strengthen the perception among Palestinians that Arafat is a “colonial stooge” or “Rabin’s Tel Aviv agent,” which Hamas already accuses him of being. To strengthen his position, Arafat must reach this conclusion himself—sooner rather than later.

Apres Nous, La Deluge

There has been some talk among pundits of building a wall between Israel and a Palestinian state. This is a fallacy at best, since the two are so inextricably linked. The idea of Palestine as a sovereign state requires prior agreement on boundaries that do not yet exist. Even now, Israel is bent on building settlements whose existence will dictate borders. Israel’s negotiations with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan did not involve such a messy handicap as the issue of Jerusalem. So far, separation is merely a slogan. Under present conditions, the separation plan Rabin intends to submit to his cabinet is unlikely to work. The public’s soured mood will make it almost impossible for Rabin to cede West Bank lands to the Palestinians as agreed on in Oslo. Thus, separation is a political gimmick, a self-deception by Rabin whose only usefulness is to defend his position against his right-wing opposition.

Even so, much of the future depends on the results of the next Israeli elections. f Rabin wins in 1996—still a likely prospect, since he remains Israel’s most substantial leader—new Israeli electoral reforms could make Rabin’s cabinet face off against a Likud majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. This would guarantee political gridlock and a dramatic change in the peace talks.

The 1996 elections could also produce a refutation of Rabin’s Oslo policy and the emergence of Netanyahu of the Likud as prime minister. The Likud accepts the concept of autonomy, as adopted by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Egypt. Netanyahu says he favors continuing negotiations with the Palestinians, but about autonomy, not Palestinian statehood. Obviously that will not be accepted by Arafat, which would make it the final blow to the Oslo process. The consequences for Israel would be dire. The intifada could restart with even greater vigor than before, accompanied by more terrorism and continuous attacks on the settlements. The likely Likud defense minister, Ariel Sharon, would handle the revolt in the most brutal way—which would return the Jewish state to its pre-Labor status as an international pariah state, as it was for almost a decade under Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud’s last prime minister. Israel’s new peace treaty with Jordan would be jeopardized. The budding economic relationships between Israel and the Persian Gulf states and between Israel and Morocco would certainly end, and the general economic consequences would be serious. American Jews would be alienated, thereby harming Israel’s major elections, outside source of support. Israel’s relationship with Washington would be strained, since no president, whether Democrat or Republican, will tolerate a return to the vicious status quo ante cycle of Israeli-Palestinian tension. It would certainly hurt Israel’s growing ties with the Far East, especially India and China, which remain a great achievement of the Rabin government. And it would deeply split Israeli society between the supporters of Oslo and the opponents of an independent Palestinian state.

A Likud victory would also strengthen the Palestinian radicals. Arafat, an accommodator who leads by consensus, will move in their direction and become the international spokesman of Palestinian rage, something he did very well before Oslo. His propaganda machinery should not be underestimated. He could well return to the old Tunis posture of confrontation.

Since a Likud victory would be the final nail in Oslo’s coffin, hopes for the Middle East peace process ride on a Rabin victory. Both Rabin and Arafat are at the mercy of Oslo, and their political careers are tied together. In a second term, Rabin could discreetly press for a more representative Palestinian coalition. In the end, an Arafat-Rabin de cannot succeed without the participation of the political wing of Hamas and the intifada generation.

Perhaps the most significant move Israel could make to restore Palestinian faith in the peace process would be to address the issue of settlements. Rabin could accept the plan of Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a leader of the dovish Meretz party, proposing the creation of two major settlement blocs, one around Jerusalem, the other near the highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. This would concentrate most of the settlers who will be transferred from the center of the West Bank to within the 1967 Green Line, an act of goodwill toward the Palestinians. Military arrangements will also have to be made with Jordan and the Palestinians on joint control of the Jordan River.

On the Palestinian side, the autonomy elections and a willingness on the part of Arafat to bow to reality might induce him to include more representative Palestinians. Without a coalition government, Arafat will never manage to establish his rule or create political stability in the future Palestinian state. This assumes, of course, that Arafat’s sense of his own survival is as keen as ever, and that his vision is not so narrow as to exclude his rivals. Vigorous counterterrorism work by Arafat’s security forces, in cooperation with Israeli intelligence and the IDF, could stem the tide of fundamentalist terrorism. Blunt condemnations of future attacks by Arafat himself, rather than his deputies, could boost Rabin’s flagging electoral fortunes.

But even such a faintly optimistic scenario will have to wait until the Oslo process lets out its final death rattle. The process no doubt will reel on—transformed, transgressed, weakened, and always embattled—right into the 1996 Israeli elections. Until then, the cunning of history is that both Rabin, who is contemptuous of Arafat, and Arafat, who resents Rabin, are electorally locked together and must continue the charade of the ongoing process. In the end, Rabin’s government would probably accept a Palestinian state, but not on the order of the arrangements made by Begin and former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, which called for placing all of the West Bank under Palestinian control. Twenty percent of that territory is now earmarked to secure Jerusalem, the major artery of the Tel Aviv-Haifa highway, and the Jordan River, For Arafat to support so truncated a state would be an act of either political courage or suicide. But if all efforts founder on the rock of maximalism, the only alternative is a permanent state of guerrilla war right into the next century—a prospect that is daunting even for the Likud.