Domestic Politics and the Prospects for an Arab-Israeli Peace

VOL. 17


No. 4
P. 3
Domestic Politics and the Prospects for an Arab-Israeli Peace


The years 1987 and 1988 marked several anniversaries: the fortieth anniversary of the UN resolution to partition Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel, and the twentieth anniversary of the June 1967 war. They are also the years in which the Palestinian intifadah has precipitated an unprecedented clash between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism and may mark a crucial milestone in the Palestinian struggle for independence. Six months of Palestinian resistance has underscored the fact that the Palestinians will settle for nothing less than statehood side-by-side with Israel in the area of historical Palestine.

It is the thesis of this article, however, that the Palestinian uprising has rendered the current political environment less, rather than more, conducive both to the emergence of the political will on the part of the local parties to negotiate, and to the fulfillment of the basic conditions required for progress toward peace: namely, Palestinian-Israeli mutual recognition and an Arab consensus in support of a peace plan. The fact is that the manifestation of a strong autonomous Palestinian nationalism in the occupied territories has upset the past modus vivendi between Jordan and Israel over the West Bank, brought the competing aims of Jordan, Israel, and the PLO into the open, and necessitated urgent attempts by all three leaderships to assert their influence in the disputed territories.

Accepted Bases of a Peace Settlement

It is generally assumed by outsiders that the states in the Middle East favor a peace settlement or at least that they need peace. Optimists point out that the principles on which a final settlement should be based have been virtually agreed upon. UN Security Council resolutions 242 (November 1967) and 338 (October 1973) provide the only internationally accepted framework for negotiations on the border issues. UN Resolution 242 recognizes the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by conquest and calls for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." It also notes the right of every state to live within "secure and recognized borders." In addition there now exists a wide international consensus that a Palestinian "homeland" should be created on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. [1] 

As for the parties to the conflict, Israel and Jordan have endorsed UN Resolution 242. After 1973, Syria accepted UN Resolution 338, which incorporated Resolution 242 and therefore implied recognition of Israel. While the PLO has not explicitly endorsed Resolution 242, together with all members of the Arab League, except Libya, it agreed to the principles of the Eight Point Peace Plan, announced in Fez in September 1982. The plan called for a Palestinian state but also recognized the right of all states in the area to live in peace, and thus implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. Israel, of course, refuses to recognize the PLO; however, during 1986 Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who unlike his predecessor had welcomed the Reagan Plan, announced his government's willingness to negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, provided those Palestinians participating were, in his words, "men of peace." In 1987 Peres, then foreign minister, announced that agreement had been reached with Jordan on the issue of non-PLO participation in a conference, although Prime Minister Yitzhaq Shamir remained opposed to the idea of an international conference with the participants that Peres envisaged.

The existence of the Fez and Reagan proposals and a plethora of other peace plans based on the relevant principles has encouraged talk about peace. Although the parties involved have not unanimously endorsed any single plan, it is assumed that negotiations, when they begin, would lead to a hammering out of the details and the necessary compromises. At a minimum there has been the possibility of interim arrangements, which could help create the climate for future agreement.

Similarly, there has been no shortage of talk about how to reach a final settlement. All kinds of peace processes have been identified, and in some cases tried. The step-by-step process initiated in 1974 by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger produced three disengagement agreements: two between Israel and Egypt in 1974 and 1975, and one between Israel and Syria in 1974. These successes spurred President Sadat to undertake his historic mission to Jerusalem in 1977, and President Carter to initiate the 1978 Camp David process, which culminated in the 1979 Israeli-Egypt Peace Treaty.

The idea of an international peace conference in which all parties including both superpowers and the PLO would take part represents an alternative approach. In 1973 the Geneva Peace Conference, co-chaired by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was held. In 1977 a joint U.S. -U.S.S.R. declaration advocated the reconvening of this forum. Subsequently the Soviet Union, the Arab states, and the PLO have reiterated their support for multilateral negotiations at an international conference, and in 1986 Prime Minister Peres went some way in meeting this demand by calling for international endorsement of Israeli-Jordanian/Palestinian negotiations. In 1987 the idea of an international conference under UN auspices gained further momentum as the U.S. administration dropped its past opposition to the idea and threw its weight behind the proposals of Foreign Minister Peres. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union showed keen interest in cajoling the Arab world into overcoming its differences on negotiations.

Against this background, many observers have contended that the gap between the minimum, and so far apparently irreconcilable, demands of the Arabs and the Israelis could be bridged. In their view, the negotiation of a formula acceptable to all sides under which territory would be traded for peace has remained a realistic option. The deadlock over the question of mutual recognition between Israel and the Arabs could somehow be circumvented or broken. Similarly, the question of the final status of the West Bank and Gaza is not regarded as insurmountable. Adequate security arrangements to protect Israel and a new Palestinian entity could be arranged. The fact that the Arab countries have gradually moderated their positions on Israel's existence and that there exist in Israel proponents of peace is considered a further cause for encouragement. Thus when the Reagan and Fez plans were announced within days of each other in September 1982, hopes rose. The Reagan Plan marked the formal return of U.S. thinking to the idea of a comprehensive solution. This would include Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in accordance with UN Resolution 242 in exchange for Arab recognition of the Jewish state, and the creation of a Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza, in which there should be self-government by the Palestinians in association with Jordan. Many Arabs took comfort in the fact that Begin's interpretation of UN Resolution 242 had been officially overridden by the U.S. King Hussein thereafter played a leading role in a bid to close the gap between the two plans, and to build up momentum which could lead to a peace conference under international auspices.

However, in 1982 there was in reality scant reason to be optimistic about an early start to serious negotiations. This remains the situation in mid-1988. Although little recognized and infrequently talked about, there are inherent difficulties constraining the principal parties involved. Outsiders, and in particular the U.S. administration, have failed to appreciate the full extent of changes inside Israel over the past two decades, or the complex internal and external pressures working on the political leaders of Syria and Jordan. In all three cases there are a number of domestic inhibitions, requirements, and aspirations which in varying combinations militate against progress toward peace.

Israeli Concessions?

The prospects for the inception of a successful peace process depend in large part on Israel's disposition toward peace. Many in Israel recognize that the country faces a serious demographic problem which could come to threaten its democracy if the occupied territories are retained. Yet Israelis are not, and have never been, collectively convinced that it is in their interest to give up the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1948 the Zionist movement was divided between those who accepted the boundaries of the new state and the minority Revisionists who did not. Following the 1967 War, Israel's policy reflected divisions in the body politic over what Israel's attitude toward the newly occupied territories should be. In principle, Israel accepted UN Resolution 242. But during the subsequent decade successive Labor governments, under pressure from those who favored annexation, appeared to abandon this resolution. Military settlements were established within the security zones set out in the Allon Plan, while civilian settlements were created in Arab East Jerusalem, annexed in 1967, and in Hebron. Labor governments were compelled to adopt a policy of immobilism on the peace issue. The coalition itself was split between its own hawks and doves-reflecting divided opinion in the country at large-with the former assuming more influence as time passed. The hawks for a variety of security, religious, and nationalist reasons, were adamantly opposed to the concept of trading territory on the West Bank and Gaza for peace with the Arabs.

The 1977-84 period represented a watershed in Israeli politics: the harnessing and consolidation of the effects of the 1967 War by the militant Zionists to further their ideals. The assumption of power by Menahem Begin led to an expansionist foreign policy toward the West Bank and the surrounding Arab states, save Egypt. The Camp David Accords achieved peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979. But Prime Minister Begin's interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which in his view applied only to Sinai and not to the West Bank and Gaza, meant that the Camp David provision for a five-year period of Palestinian autonomy represented the full extent of his government's compromise on this issue. Begin insisted on Israel's retaining sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza with autonomy interpreted to refer to Palestinian control over educational and municipal affairs. Meanwhile, the Likud made clear in its domestic statements its intention to incorporate the biblical entities of "Judea and Samaria" into Israel proper, and implemented an aggressive settlement policy to speed up the process. In short, while the Camp David Accords provided a framework for negotiations into which the Palestinians could in theory have been drawn, the Likud demonstrated through its diplomacy and actions that there was minimum scope for compromise.

By October 1984, with the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) under the premiership of Shimon Peres, the question of the future of the West Bank and Gaza featured high on the government's list of priorities after the economic crisis and the imbroglio in Lebanon. In opposition, Peres and the Labor Alignment, taking advantage of the mood of soul-searching in the country after Israel's disastrous intervention in Lebanon, had been outspoken on the need for negotiations on the return of the West Bank to Jordan. Labor endorsed the 1982 Reagan Plan-a step, which, in contrast with Begin's interpretation of UN Resolution 242, indicated Labor's acceptance of the idea of trading most of the land on the West Bank and Gaza and on the Golan in exchange for peace with the Arabs after a transitional period. Once in office, Peres saw advantage in appealing to the country on a "peace ticket" for a second term in office, and devoted his energies to bringing about direct talks with King Hussein. In this task he confronted deep-seated constraints.

The NUG was beset with weaknesses from the start, although Peres personally sustained his image as a man of peace throughout 1985 and 1986.

The October 1984 election results had not only reflected the long-term shift to the right in Israel's public opinion but also a dissatisfaction on the part of those potential Labor supporters of dovish inclination with Labor's ambivalent attitude toward peace. The polarization of the electorate prevented Peres' Labor Alignment from forming a government without the opposing Likud bloc. The inclusion of the Likud, which still reflects and determines the preferred foreign policy orientation of the current right-wing majority in Israel, effectively gave Likud a veto over foreign policy. In their coalition agreement, Labor and Likud agreed to call on Jordan to begin peace negotiations without prior conditions. [2] But the agreement ruled out the possibility of negotiating a territorial compromise based on UN Resolution 242 or negotiating with the PLO. It called instead for the negotiation of full autonomy for the Palestinians, as agreed at Camp David, and the retention of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories. Since, from the outset, it was well known that Labor and Likud did not mean the same thing by autonomy, the agreement effectively ruled out movement on the peace front.

Israelis remain divided over whether to withdraw or keep the occupied territories, with the majority in favor of the latter. But Peres may now have more flexibility with regard to pressing for peace talks with the Arabs. This is because he could count on strong support from outside a narrow Labor coalition for a peace with Jordan which would permit Palestinians rights on the West Bank and Gaza but which would not involve forfeiting Israeli sovereignty. He would be unlikely, however, at present to rally a majority behind the so-called Jordanian option, the plan with which he has personally been associated to date, under which most of the West Bank would be returned to Jordan, but with Israel retaining control over areas essential for its security.

These differences of approach within Labor and Likud, which are not generally publicly acknowledged by Arab popular opinion, suggest that a shift in Israeli public opinion away from Likud and the religious nationalist parties back to Labor might contribute to the cause of peace. The prospects for a gradual shift of this kind depend on a number of factors. There is a possibility that those Sephardi voters who voted in the last two elections in favor of the hawkish Likud and other ring-wing parties because of economic and social grievances, but who do not oppose a West Bank and Gaza peace settlement, may vote Labor in the future. Six months of Palestinian rebellion in the occupied territories have brought the Israelis face to face with the realities of their colonial dilemma. A growing number of Israelis now recognize that political differences with the Arabs and Palestinians cannot be resolved through the use of military force and the holding of territory alone, and that continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza may carry an unacceptably high price in terms of domestic politics and Israel's relations with its neighbors and outside powers.

However, even if a gradual shift in Israeli voting behavior eventually enables Labor to form a coalition with the parties to its left in favor of peace, formidable obstacles to the conclusion of the kind of peace settlement that international opinion calls for would still remain. First, although the debate among Zionists over the proper borders for their state and the definition of the political community has reached a critical juncture, there is little prospect for an early solution. The divide is between those who are unprepared to contemplate concessions to the. Palestinians and the moderate wing, which is split between those who are willing to trade for peace and those who want peace but do not believe the surrender of territory will win it. As long as Israelis fail to resolve this basic conflict, all Israeli governments are likely to opt for "deciding not to decide" and paying the political costs this implies rather than taking the political risks of either annexing or withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza.

A second reason lies in the Israeli psyche and the central importance that Israelis have always attached to the instrument of military force-first to establish an independent state, second to defend it against what has been seen as an implacably hostile Arab world, and third (for those who adhere to militant Zionist ideology) to consolidate and expand the state to include the whole of Eretz Yisra'el. [3] Even before 1967, as Yoram Peri points out, [4] state control of the military was weak because of the way party politics brought different groups of political and military leaders together through- out successive governments. After 1967, the IDF became an army of occupation. It grew in size and in six years defense spending tripled. With its new security and administrative role, the IDF's influence in politics increased. Also important has been the way in which the army has been a path into senior positions in politics and defense-related industries. Today's political leaders, including Peres, Rabin, Shamir, Sharon, and Weizman, all began their careers in the military. Against this background, those political leaders contemplating moves toward peace face a special dilemma.

Peres is said to be one of those in the Labor party who has moved toward the idea of surrendering sovereignty over most of the West Bank and Gaza. If so, he could be expected to try and lead his country into peace negotiations if King Hussein, like Sadat, were to come up with an offer which impressed the Israeli electorate. But his assessment ignores the special priority that Peres and his generation of leaders attach to security, the fact that their own routes to power have been through the defense establishment in which they have important constituencies of support. There is thus an element of schizophrenia in Labor's position and in that of Peres himself toward the idea of peace.

It must, therefore, be asked whether those Israeli political leaders who say they are disposed towards peace could in practice bring themselves to evacuate the occupied territories and dismantle the security apparatus that withdrawal would imply. Are they likely to introduce a policy that would lead to a contraction of the defense sector which provides so much employment, and a scaling down of the arms industry which, though financed by the U.S., helps Israel to hedge its bets against a diminution of U.S. support? Could they be sure that the military would acquiesce in a lower profile within the state? And would they risk the political violence that withdrawal would precipitate among those militants dedicated to securing Eretz Yisra'el? All this suggests that even were Hussein to come up with a reasonable offer, there can be no guarantee of a positive Israeli response. Israel's leaders, including those of Peres' disposition, may find compelling reasons to opt for a continuation of the status quo. Indeed, Israel's politics ensure that the most that Peres is likely to favor is some version of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza with the ultimate disposition of these areas to be decided at the end of a transition period.

The most that any Israeli government is ever likely to agree to concede-even at the end of a successfully conducted peace process and transition period-would be a peace along the lines of the Allon Plan which would leave extensive security zones on the Golan and on the West Bank under permanent Israeli occupation. In the case of the West Bank this would include the retention by Israel of strategic areas along the western bank of the Jordan River, together with the settlements built in these areas, the return of the Arab areas (West Bank and Gaza Strip) to Jordan- not to the PLO-and possibly some kind of Vatican-like status for the Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem. [5] There would be bound to be modifications to the Allon Plan reflecting changes in the attitudes of Israelis and the facts on the ground created since the plan was originally conceived. And Israel would require guarantees from Jordan against the PLO's acquiring sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Even then, whatever safeguards might be built into such an agreement, any Labor coalition would encounter grave opposition once the Knesset and the country had to face the political reality of what would be bound to be a traumatic withdrawal.

King Hussein's Predicament: The Consequences of Acting Alone

Most Arab states have moderated their political positions toward Israel since 1967, and support the idea of eventual co-existence with it. This moderation on the question of Israel's continued existence, although in some cases grudging, reflects a growing sense of realism in the face of Israeli military power, and a desire for peace. It is exemplified by the agreement at the Arab summit in Baghdad in November 1978 by all twenty-one participating members of the Arab League including Iraq, Syria, and the PLO to seek a negotiated peace on the basis of Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the right of the Palestinians to an independent state. The absence of a vociferous rejection of the Reagan Plan was further evidence of Arab readiness to consider peace with Israel. So, too, was the Arab consensus forged at Fez in September 1982 around the idea of "guarantees for peace for all the states of the region."

Few doubt King Hussein's desire to bring about a comprehensive peace. For Jordan, the shift in the strategic balance in favor of Israel has serious military and political implications. Jordan is a small state and it is surrounded by militarily powerful neighbors-Israel, Syria, and Iraq. Of all the Arab states, it is the most affected-demographically, politically, and economically-by the unresolved Palestinian issue. As long as the PLO exists, that organization will represent a constant pull on the loyalty of Palestinians in Jordan. The king is also aware of the resentment of Palestinians in Jordan in general at the dearth of political opportunities open to them in the country and the extent to which the effects of economic recession have increased the sense of separation between Palestinians and Transjordanians. Palestinians want the full rights to which they are entitled as Jordanian citizens, and in the wake of the Palestinian uprising may seek to press their demands more persuasively. This combination could make the successful Palestinian middle classes as well as the refugees more receptive to the appeal of a strong Palestinian nationalist leadership.

In the absence of a comprehensive peace or the satisfaction of the Palestinians' demand for self-determination, the danger of a devastating war with Israel or political instability on the East Bank remains. Either of these could threaten the security of the state and continuation of the monarchy. At the same time, the position of the Hashimites would be immeasurably strengthened if Jordan were able to bring about the termination of the Arab-Israel conflict, retrieve Arab land and Islam's holy places in Jerusalem lost to Israel in 1967, and liberate over a million Arabs-provided this could be achieved in a manner compatible with Hashimite interests.

However powerful the inducements of peace, Hussein's room for maneuver is heavily circumscribed by the need to hold policy positions on the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian issues which strengthen rather than erode the security of the state and the monarchy. He cannot afford seriously to alienate even part of the Arab and Islamic worlds lest he jeopardize crucial economic support on which his army, his bureaucracy, and the day-to-day running of the country depend. It is this support that permits the king to fulfill his side of the political compact he maintains with his people. The armed forces and the administration are institutions which provide the king's all-important Transjordanian constituency with work, pay, and prestige. Similarly, outside subsidies have helped to finance levels of imports and economic activity which have enabled the kingdom's mainly Palestinian business community to thrive and, in some cases, to acquiesce more willingly in Hashimite rule than would otherwise have been the case.

There are limits, therefore, to what the king can realistically be prepared to risk trying to seek peace on his own. Frustrations with Yasir Arafat notwithstanding, Hussein knows he cannot afford to negotiate without the PLO. As long as Palestinians on the East and West Banks and elsewhere in the Arab world recognize the PLO as their representative, and as long as the Arabs generally adopt the Palestinian cause as their own, Hussein is in no position to abandon the 1974 Rabat resolution which recognized the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

Nor is the king in a position to emulate Sadat and survive the consequences. Jordan's economic dependence on its Arab neighbors and its vulnerability to Syrian hostility have given it a high stake in remaining within the Arab mainstream and extending whatever support to the PLO this requires. Besides, Hussein is wary of unilateral action that would strengthen the position of those Israelis who contend that the Palestinians already have a state in Jordan. To assume a mandate to speak for the Palestinians might be construed by proponents of this line as incontrovertible evidence of the validity of their argument.

Hussein has no wish to go down in history as the political leader who forfeited Palestinian rights or Palestinian territory in concessions to Israel, and negotiations will inevitably involve concessions on all sides. As long as the PLO exists-however divided its ranks-it must carry the responsibility of negotiating the future of the Palestinians. If the king were to make any concessions, he would be the target of criticism not only from Palestinians and the Arab states including Saudi Arabia, but also from his Transjordanian constituency, who would oppose exposing Jordan's security in this way. The risk of failure is another consideration. The king would have to cope with the adverse consequences of having broken Arab ranks and of incurring a decline in both his personal credibility as well as the kingdom's regional standing.

Similarly, Hussein is constrained in any dealings with the PLO. Transjordanians do not at present view the Palestinians in Jordan as a threat, but they are aware that regional events coupled with the impact of the economic recession could quickly alter this state of affairs. While they favor a modus vivendi with the PLO because this helps to ease relations with the Palestinians, there is a fear that the weight of Palestinian numbers could one day lead to a solution at Jordan's expense. For the Hashimites, the 1974 Rabat resolutions were an ominous development because they challenged Hussein's own claim to represent the Palestinians. As ruler of a country in which Palestinians constituted around half the population, the king believed the responsibility was his. Furthermore, the recognition at Rabat of the right of the Palestinians to create a national authority (sultah wataniyyah) on any land liberated pointed in the direction of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Hashimites had always opposed such an outcome because the division of the kingdom would, in their view, challenge and undermine their authority over the Palestinians on the East Bank, and could lead to the East Bank's eventual absorption into a Palestinian state.

However, Hussein also knows that a Jordanian-PLO partnership in itself is not enough. He needs the approval of at least Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, on which he is crucially dependent. To embark upon bilateral negotiations-even with PLO involvement-and thus to accept Israel's existence and legitimacy without attending to wider Arab interests-would arouse strong hostility in the Arab world, and would be tantamount to inviting the overthrow of the Hashimite regime.

The king has also decided that he needs U.S. support for Jordanian involvement in the Palestinian issue. Many Jordanians doubt whether the long-term benefits that peace would bring are worth the short-term risks that a peace process implies. In the king's view, U.S. support is crucial to tipping the balance in Jordan's favor. This is partly because Jordan's historical, political, and defense ties with the West (and in the case of the latter with the U.S. in particular) have combined to underpin and finance the political and economic structures on which Hashimite rule depends. Hussein also requires U.S. support to ensure a central role for Jordan in a peace process and for the international cover it would provide. [6] If the U.S. were persuaded of the need to involve the PLO, then the king hopes it would exert pressure on Israel to show flexibility on the issue of Palestinian representation. Simultaneously, U.S. support for a PLO role and PLO responsibility would reduce Hussein's own vulnerability in the event of joint Jordanian-PLO moves toward negotiations with Israel, provide a means of circumventing Rabat, and ensure that the PLO-and not Jordan alone- would be identified with any concessions made. Finally, U.S. backing for an international conference would secure the presence of other participants at negotiations, another prerequisite for Jordanian participation. In short, the king requires insurance that the international and regional balance will work in favor of the Hashimites and Jordan before he is prepared to proceed down the path to negotiations.

The Palestinian uprising and the keen sense of autonomous Palestinian nationalism it embodies represents a resounding rejection by West Bankers and Gazans of this Hashimite approach to the occupied territories. The Palestinian rebellion implies a rejection of: the de facto peace toward which the king had been working with Israel following the collapse of the Jordanian-PLO dialogue; the king's claim to represent the Palestinians and his attempt to bypass the PLO; and the idea of an eventual confederation between a future Palestinian state and Jordan, which has found favor in the West.

The potential challenge to Hussein is two-fold. First, whatever leader- ship may be in the making on the West Bank, the PLO is now firmly in ascendance in the Hashimite-PLO competition for influence in the occupied territories. Second, the Palestinian cause could yet become a vehicle for those groups in Jordan who oppose the government and status quo to galvanize support. In short, political turbulence in the occupied territories appears to have rendered untenable the king's pursuit of a formula that would simultaneously bring the West Bank under Jordan's control, channel Palestinian nationalist aspirations, and maintain a balance between Transjordanians and Palestinians in the kingdom in favor of the Hashimites. Just as the Palestinians under occupation have directly challenged Israeli rule, so the Palestinians in Jordan and other dissatisfied elements may now no longer be willing to acquiesce in the status quo in the kingdom.

Asad's Stake in "No Peace, No War"

Despite its apparent intransigence, Syria also favors peace, but on its own terms. Above all, President Hafiz al-Asad seeks to avoid a full-scale war with Israel in which Syrian forces would be defeated and which could bring about the collapse of his regime. Syrians generally are weary of the conflict and recognize the sacrifices their country has made in order to maintain an ever-growing military capacity. They want peace, but the terms are ones for which they are prepared to wait.

Despite its anti-Israeli rhetoric, the government's official position reflects this moderate public sentiment. On 8 March 1972 Asad said in a speech, "We support the Security Council resolutions when interpreted as providing for the withdrawal of the enemy from the Arab territory occupied in 1967 and as a confirmation of the rights of the Palestinian people." [7] At Fez in 1982, Asad endorsed the concept of a negotiated peace and is even reported to have spoken of the Reagan Plan in favorable terms *to Mr. Pym, then British foreign secretary. [8] Following the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in November 1985, Reagan's Middle East advisor, Richard Murphy, talked with Asad about the conditions under which Syria might join a peace initiative. [9] And during Asad's visit to Moscow in April 1987, a Soviet- Syrian statement was issued which called for a collective effort to achieve peace in the Middle East. It specifically referred to holding an international conference under the aegis of the UN as a means to achieve it. [10]

Syria has no reason, however, to feel the same sense of urgency in achieving peace as King Hussein. Asad intends to build Syria into the leading power in the Arab world and his policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict forms an integral part of that objective. Syria's position has long been that negotiations should be conducted only when it has reached strategic parity with Israel (encompassing military, technical, and economic factors, and the support of the Soviet Union to balance U.S. support for Israel), and is therefore able to bargain from a position of strength in order to press Israel to make a peace satisfactory to the Arabs. Israel's invasion of Lebanon demonstrated how the Israel-Egypt peace treaty had facilitated Israel's long-term aim of trying to neutralize each of its Arab neighbors. If Israel were permitted to achieve this, so Asad argues, either through force or through the conclusion of treaties, Israel would be in a position to exert control over the West Bank, Gaza, and South Lebanon, and possibly areas even further afield through annexation or occupation. Syria also insists that negotiations take place within the framework of an international conference on the grounds that the Arabs are at a disadvantage if Israeli negotiates with each state individually. To this must be added the Syrian concern that should it be left until last in any step by step process, it would be poorly placed to extract any, let alone its minimum, requirements from Israel. Syria's principal declared requirements, of course, are the return of the Golan Heights and the realization of Palestinian national rights.

Had Syria moved toward the moderate Arab consensus which emerged after 1982 it would have been left with no bargaining cards with which to win an acceptable deal on the Golan. Any move together with Jordan and the PLO toward peace at that stage would have left Syria's western flank unacceptably exposed to Israel and its internal politics hostage to Lebanon's many divisions. Nor could Asad contemplate a capitulationist policy. Syria views itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and could be proud that it had done more than other Arab states against Israel in Lebanon; domestically, Asad could not politically afford to concede victory to Israel by negotiating with it.

Second, there is no pressing reason why Syria should settle for less than the return of the Golan. Syria's claim can be backed by international law. Israel's annexation of the Golan in 1981 does not carry the longterm demographic danger for Syria that the potential displacement of Palestinians by Israel's creeping annexation of the West Bank implies for Jordan. Moreover, Israel may be less resistant to a surrender of all of the Golan in the longer term, since there is no strong religious constituency in Israel which regards the Golan as part of historic Israel. With the sophisticated weapons and radar systems now available, the security argument cited in the past by Israel as reason for holding onto the Golan no longer carries the same weight.

Third, in regional terms, Asad has no interest in a settlement which resolves the West Bank and the Golan issues, but which threatens to leave a residual and potentially destabilizing Palestinian presence in Lebanon. In Syria's view, Israel would then have carte blanche to pursue ambitions in Lebanon in a way that could pose a grave external threat to Syria with potentially dangerous repercussions for its internal politics. Moreover, any Syrian genuflection in the direction of a coordinated position with Jordan and Egypt or a separate deal with Israel would incur the wrath of Syria's current allies, Libya and Iran, which still supply important economic and oil aid. Similarly, the pan-Arab aid, which was promised to Syria as a frontline state and provided it resisted a separate peace with Israel, would be put at risk.

Asad is a pragmatist and he knows that Syria has little to gain from peace negotiations now. In his view, Washington has not shown itself politically capable of pressing Israel into making the sort of concessions that Syrians would be prepared to accept or with which Asad could afford to be associated. On the contrary, the argument goes, U.S. strategic planners want to keep their one reliable Middle Eastern ally strong. Besides, the U.S. has consistently ignored Syria's legitimate concerns: President Carter sponsored the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which took Egypt out of the Arab coalition and thus reduced pressure on Israel to return the Golan, and U. S. military support of Israel poses a continuing threat to Syria's security. The most that could be expected of the U.S. would be the encouragement of direct negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, possibly with some form of international opening ceremony. But Asad has little desire to see Hussein and Arafat strike a bargain with Israel on the West Bank and Gaza which would make Jordan the country which won back territory from Israel at the expense of Asad's own ambitions for this role. Any international framework which merely provides the necessary all-Arab cover for such a Jordanian-Palestinian-Egyptian approach sponsored by the U.S. is therefore anathema to the Syrian president. It would irritate Syria's allies and might involve the Soviet Union's resuming diplomatic relations with Israel prior to negotiations-an important bar- gaining card which should, in the Syrian view, be kept for when the difficult negotiations begin.

Syria's growing military strength, made possible by the supply of modern weaponry by the Soviet Union, must be seen in this context. The idea of a strategic balance with Israel is, at its simplest, based on the notion that only military strength can provide the Arabs with the bargaining power to negotiate an acceptable peace with Israel, and the deterrent capability to guarantee the peace once achieved. But Syria's military build-up represents more than this. It has provided a hedge against the possibility of Syria's being left until last in any step-by-step peace process which takes insufficient account of its aspirations and objectives. And it reflects the coincidence so far of Soviet and Syrian interests on this issue. In short, the combination of political gains and the military power underpinning them may provide Asad with the flexibility to veto for an indefinite period (or for as long as the Soviet Union extends its support) any efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli issue that ignore his own ambitions for a regional leadership role or fall short of Syria's minimum and legitimate requirements for a settlement.

The International Peace Conference

By 1987, Middle East events had encouraged the international community and regional leaders to put the idea of an international peace conference back on the agenda. Even prior to the Palestinian uprising, the U.S., the Soviet Union, the European Community, the Arab states, the reunified PLO, and half the Israeli government were publicly committed to the idea of a conference. The Americans had made moves to resuscitate the peace process, although these were apparently motivated as much by concern to limit the damage to U.S.-Arab relations incurred by U.S. arm sales to Iran as by a belief that the parties to the conflict might be ready for peace. In January, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, Richard Murphy, visited the Middle East, and in February Washington indicated cautious support for a peace conference. In line with its more active foreign policy under Mr. Gorbachev, the Soviet Union had encouraged Israel with talk of increased emigration of Soviet Jews and warmer Israeli-Soviet relations. It had also worked for greater Arab unity. It played a role in bringing about the reunification of the PLO and in extracting a more positive expression of support for an international conference from Asad. It worked for the reconciliation of Syria and Iraq, and it supported the convening of an early Arab summit. The West Europeans tried to tum renewed superpower interest to advantage through a declaration of support in February for the Soviet plan for an international conference.

For their part, local political leaders supported an international peace conference because this served their own political and national interests. Throughout 1987 King Hussein and Foreign Minister Peres vigorously pursued the conference idea. Most importantly, the king's support for an international conference with a role for the PLO indicated his desire to take Jordan back into the Arab mainstream. The king's change of tack away from the policy of tacit cooperation with Israel toward the occupied territories was in part a response to the opposition of influential members of the Transjordanian elite. They argued that the policy helped to consolidate Israel's occupation, implied Jordan's wish to represent the Palestinians, and tarnished Jordan's image as a confrontation state and supporter of the Palestinian cause. Other motivations included public indications of Arab disapproval and the king's desire to mend fences with Arafat lest the reunified PLO pave the way to enhanced Syrian influence over the organization.

In addition, both Hussein and Peres had a strong common interest in achieving sufficient progress on the peace issue to undermine the influence of the Likud before the onset of the U.S. presidential campaign. For Peres, the aim was to generate enough momentum to win majority support in the cabinet and to achieve the dissolution of the Knesset in preparation for the general elections; for the king it was to ensure that the peace process rallied

In April the Arab foreign ministers declared support for a peace conference, thereby preparing the way for an Arab summit. And at the meeting of the PNC in Algiers in the same month, the reunified PLO extended support for a peace conference, although it also reminded the parties concerned that no peace process could succeed without its participation. However, it was the Palestinian uprising, which began in December, which served to remind the world that the problems of Israel's twenty-year occupation would not go away and which galvanized a fatigued U.S. administration into launching a peace initiative. In February 1988, the U.S. secretary of state, George Shultz, carried proposals to the Middle East which envisaged an early international meeting to inaugurate direct negotiations between Israel, Jordan, and a delegation of Palestinians for the implementation of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the start in December of talks on the final status of the occupied territories. The optimists argued that the U.S. offer stood a chance of resulting in a breakthrough. They contended that circumstances were more propitious for progress insofar as the Israelis, exposed to unprecedented criticism, may have been shocked out of their inertia, that the Arabs had collectively refocused attention on the Palestinian issue, and that Jordan, whose own security was challenged by a potential loss of control in the occupied territories, might now be prepared to take risks for peace.

The pessimists, on the other hand, contended that the U.S. had either failed to comprehend that the intifadah implied fundamental changes in the West Bank and Gaza, which called for imaginative untried formulas, or that the U.S. was merely attempting to convey the impression of movement to take the pressure off Israel and arrest the slide into regional insecurity. The pessimists further argued that the Palestinians, who for the moment held the initiative, had no incentive to accept what they had refused in the past-namely, the by-passing of the PLO and autonomy rather than independent statehood-and that the impact in Israel of the Palestinian revolt had been a further polarization of attitudes at Labor's expense and against peace.

Obstacles to Peace

The amount of discussion on various sides that focused on the ways and means of convening an international peace conference, therefore, has not implied progress toward early negotiations. In 1988 many obstacles to a conference remain, with procedural and substantive issues as intractable as ever.

One difficulty concerns differences over procedural matters and the function and form of an international conference. King Hussein needs as broad a framework as possible in order to win Arab and PLO endorsement for Jordanian participation in talks. Foreign Minister Peres envisages an international ceremonial setting for bilateral talks with the Arab states, and in the first instance with Jordan. Prime Minister Shamir opposes the idea of an international conference on the grounds that it would subject Israel to strong pressures to make concessions. But in order to avoid appearing intransigent, Shamir has proposed an alternative plan for a conference to be attended by Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians, and the U.S. The U.S. and Israel want to minimize the Soviet role, but too obvious an attempt to do so is likely to antagonize the Arabs, cause Jordan to back down, and thus to torpedo the whole effort. The Soviet Union wants a conference attended by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and with full powers of arbitration. Nor is it likely that the Soviet Union would agree to the exclusion of the PLO. 'In addition, although Moscow would itself support the renewal of diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Israel-Israel's condition for Soviet participation-it would be hesitant to move ahead of its Arab clients on this issue. The cautious moves taken by Israel and the Soviet Union during 1987 and 1988 toward improved relations may be intended to pave the way to a solution to this particular problem in the longer term. [11] 

A second difficulty is that the local parties are unlikely to demonstrate the kind of political commitment necessary to turn the idea of an international conference into a reality. First, the scope for statesmanship is limited by domestic preoccupations with power. The problem here concerns the unwillingness of leaders-Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian-to put negotiations before national unity. No leader has been strong enough to overcome or bypass internal divisions on what an appropriate bargaining position should be. Jordan urgently requires peace, but the king dares not risk his throne by taking steps that might alienate important Transjordanian and Palestinian constituencies. Israel says it wants peace, but the Israelis need to return the occupied territories, and most oppose PLO participation in any talks. The PLO's new-found unity precludes recognition of Israel before negotiations begin or any compromise on full PLO participation at the negotiating table.

A third and related difficulty is interstate or interparty. This concerns the irreconcilability of the parties' minimum positions, which are rooted in the aspirations, ideologies, and security perceptions of political leaders and their supporters. Mr. Shamir, whose party is committed to the recreation of Eretz Yisra'el, could scarcely be expected to ease the way to a negotiated settlement based on the exchange of territory for peace. President Asad will obstruct any peace process that threatens to exclude the Golan Heights and South Lebanon, to lead to an extension of Jordanian influence over the West Bank or to a strengthened Egypt, or permits the PLO too much independence-all of which would be perceived to be at the expense of his own regime. For reasons concerning ambition, continued access to inter- national finance, and security, the Hashimites' preference is for a formula that would keep the West Bank within or closely tied to the kingdom, but which would not undermine the security of the East Bank-a formula which does not conform with the idea of self-determination as conceived by most Palestinians.

A fourth difficulty is that-as implied earlier in this article-an Arab realignment will be a necessary prerequisite for a comprehensive peace between the Arabs and Israel. But an Arab alliance would in no way guarantee a united policy toward Israel or guaranteed progress toward the holding of a peace conference. This is not to underestimate the importance of current realignments in the Arab world. Relations between Jordan and Syria are warmer than they have been for nearly a decade. The possibility of a Syrian-Iraqi rapprochement cannot be excluded, [12] although differences between the two heads of state remain great. Moreover, the Arab League's decision to convene the November 1987 Arab summit and King Hussein's success in producing compromise around a set of resolutions by the complement of Arab leaders, including Asad, indicated broad agreement on the need for unity and paved the way for an acceptable formula for Egypt's subsequent readmission into the Arab fold. But Arab realignments have typically been a response to local developments, designed to serve the interests of the states concerned and even more importantly, of the regimes in power. None has been undertaken specifically to pave the way to peace. King Hussein may be in a hurry for peace, but his rapprochement with Syria, his subsequent efforts to bring about a Syrian-Iraqi rapprochement, [13] and his role in persuading Arab states to attend the Amman summit were motivated by other considerations too. Quite apart from the importance Jordan attaches to Arab unity against the background of the crisis in the Gulf, Amman would have hoped for a renewed Arab commitment to increase, or at least to continue payments when the 1978 Baghdad Arab commitment expires later this year. President Asad's meeting with the Iraqi president in April may have had more to do with extracting military aid from the U.S.S.R. and pressing for a new economic agreement from Iran than with the search for peace with Israel.

Another problem is that while the 1982 Fez Plan represented an Arab consensus, it is far from clear whether that particular Arab consensus could be repeated today. The Amman summit was always unlikely to produce a bold joint position with Syria and the reunified PLO in attendance; and indeed, the Palestinian issue was marginalized in favor of the Gulf war. The Arab world remains divided on the way forward on the Arab-Israel dispute between those who want to achieve at least the appearance of progress and those who prefer to wait until the Arabs can bargain from strength. In these circumstances, initiatives such as that undertaken by King Hassan of Morocco in his meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Peres in July 1986 will be condemned by the hardliners and will place unwelcome pressures on the moderate states. Moreover, a strong and united Arab world that includes the PLO is likely to be perceived as threatening by Israel and by its supporters in the United States.

A fifth difficulty is that the Palestinian uprising appears to have exacerbated rather than alleviated the intrastate and interstate contradictions set out above. The result is a political environment that is less, rather than more, conducive both to the emergence of the political will to negotiate and to the fulfillment of the basic condition required for progress toward peace: reciprocal recognition by Israel and the Palestinians. Consider the impact of the Palestinian rioting in the occupied territories and the boost to the PLO this has produced. Whether or not the violence gradually wanes, a profound change has occurred in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. The West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have demonstrated the lengths to which they are prepared to go to win their independence. And while the political structures in the occupied territories are still inchoate, the uprising has demonstrated a new radicalism among Palestinian youth to which Israel has no response, and which suggests that a new leadership is in the making, less willing to contemplate concessions than their predecessors. By the same token, the continuing intifadah and outside pressures on Israel have produced a polarization of attitudes in Israel which seems likely to work in favor of hardline Israeli elements. Shamir has been strengthened in his resistance to Peres' efforts to gather support in the cabinet and Knesset for a peace conference, while Peres has been undercut in his diplomacy aimed at finding a formula for Palestinian representation acceptable to Israelis and compatible with Hussein's political needs.

Given this situation, the Jordanian option, which the U.S. and Israel have perceived as providing a way for Israelis and Arabs to bypass the PLO and the need for an independent Palestinian state, is dead. The king has lost ground to the PLO and his own role has been marginalized. Even were Peres in a position to offer autonomy to the Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and in Gaza leading to a confederation between these Palestinians and Jordan, this would fall far short of the minimum that the Arab states and the PLO could accept.

A sixth difficulty is that the Arab-Israeli dispute is a war between relatively small states which has become permeated by superpower rivalry. With their growing stake in competition for influence in the Middle East, the role of the superpowers has been to raise the level of armaments above the means of the local states. One consequence of such superpower backing has been to make the local powers undefeatable-neither superpower will allow its client to win outright since this could involve them in a confrontation. By the same token, there is no reason why, left to themselves, the local parties, locked in a stalemated war and undefeated, should make the concessions that a peace settlement requires.

The prospect for progress toward a formal Arab-Israeli peace therefore, seems bleak. The essential prerequisites are: a fundamental change in Israeli popular attitudes, which would permit talks with the PLO or, failing that, a willingness on the part of the Israeli government to put considerations of negotiations and peace before considerations of national unity [14]; recognition by PLO leader Yasir Arafat of UN resolutions 242 and 338 or the agreement by the PLO to permit individual Palestinians prepared to accept UN Resolution 242 to participate in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation; a broadly based Arab consensus, including Syria and the PLO, behind a peace plan which attends to Syria's requirement for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and South Lebanon, and sets out the political conditions under which an independent Palestinian state would come into being- including a future constitutional link with Jordan and nonaligned status; and willingness and ability on the part of the U.S. administration and the Soviet Union to find and commit the necessary time, skills, and energy to a sustained search for peace and the guarantees to sustain it. Early on in the process the main protagonists (Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the PLO) would want to clarify what is to be negotiated and would inevitably come up against their irreconcilable and competing claims for land. It would be for the United States and the Soviet Union (and any other mediators involved) to help the parties satisfy themselves on the practicability and acceptability of a set of proposals to enable them to move ahead.

The Way Ahead

Notwithstanding this daunting catalogue of obstacles strewn in the path of peace, it is possible to adopt an optimistic point of view. The road to negotiations will be long and fraught with difficulties, but a peace settlement must have a major attraction for most participants. Admittedly, some of the solutions envisaged would carry new dangers, but these are unlikely to be worse than the risks inherent in a continuation of no peace. And, however unlikely, spectacular moves by ambitious politicians or by those needing a success for internal reasons are not without historical precedent.

For the foreseeable future, however, the prospect is likely to be a continuation of the status quo, not least because the political leaders of the states most directly concerned with the conflict derive advantage from a state of "no peace, no war." Besides, a final peace settlement would involve destabilizing policy adjustments. The Hashimites do not want to renounce their claim to the West Bank because this would reduce their access to outside funds, deprive them of their Arab self-image (which they like to strengthen in order to legitimize their rule) and of their rationale for postponing democratization, and pave the way for a Palestinian state. On the other hand, to return to the pre-1967 situation would saddle Jordan with the task of reconciling Palestinian and Transjordanian nationalisms within some form of unity between the two banks, and raise the question of eventual Palestinian predominance. For Syria, peace with Israel would deprive it of its status as the main confrontation state, which, if followed through to its logical conclusion, should lead to ideological adjustments, shifts in spending patterns, and more evenhanded relations with the superpowers-all of which would be tantamount to dismantling the state apparatus on which Asad depends. However, in the meanwhile, the ability of President Asad to continue to sustain a balance of regional and domestic interest well beyond Syria's capabilities is question- able. As for Israel, there is no desire to precipitate the internal trauma that an eventual withdrawal, however partial, would involve. On the other hand, annexation would present the Israelis with the difficult policy choice of either eventually absorbing the West Bank and Gaza or, sooner or later, facing the demographic consequences of such a move for Arab rights and for democratic institutions or of expelling the Arabs to preserve the Jewish character of the state.

The fact is that the political systems of the Middle East have not changed. The intractability of the Arab-Israeli dispute is not only about territory, but is bound up with the search of political leaders for legitimacy, with their ambitions, and with the survival of their governments. It follows that there will be no solution to the conflict until the conditions can be created whereby local parties feel simultaneously that their interests are best served by making peace. In the interim, leaders intent on survival and on holding on to what they have will continue to rely on the instrument of violence to deal with their domestic opponents and regional disputes. Against this background the fact that outside powers have no set of policies to cope with the radicalization of the region or with less predictable and more intransigent leaders than those in place only reinforces the argument of those who call for urgent, renewed attention to the Middle East problem.


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Valerie Yorke is a writer on Middle East affairs. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, Domestic Politics and Regional Security: Jordan, Syria, and Israel (Gower/Intemational Institute for Strategic Studies).

1. In March 1977, President Carter suggested the idea of a "homeland" for the Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In October 1976, the British government had spoken of a "home" for the Palestinians. The EC endorsed the concept of a "homeland" in the Declaration of the Nine of June 1977.

2. For the text of the Coalition Agreement, entitled Basic (Policy) Guidelines of the Government's Programme, Jerusalem, 13 September 1984, see Statement of the Information Department, Embassy of Israel, London, September 1984.

3. For a thorough discussion of this issue see Michael Jansen, Dissonance in Zion (London: Zed Books, 1987), 19-50.

4. Yoram Peri, Between Battles and Ballots: Israeli Military in Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), vii.

5. This argument concerning the limit of flexibility has been frequently set out elsewhere. See Yigal Allon, "Israel: The Case for Defensible Borders," Foreign Affairs 55, no. 1 (Fall 1976), 38-53. See also Henry Kissinger, "US Gets Set to Leap into Quagmire of Mideast Peace," Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1985.

6. For a discussion see Aaron D. Miller, "Jordan and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: the Hashemite Predicament," Orbis, Winter 1986, 816-20.

7. Radio Damascus, 8 March 1972 (FBIS) as cited in John F. Devlin, "Syrian Policy," in Robert O. Freedman (ed.), The Middle East Since Camp David, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984), 136, 142, n. 32.

8. Cited in Adeed Dawisha, "Comprehensive Peace in the Middle East and the Comprehension of Arab Politics," Middle East Journal 37 no.1 (Winter 1983), 50.

9. Reported by Jay Kent in "The Assad Factor," The Middle East, January 1986, 47.

10. Summary of World Broadcasts, Part 1, SU/8553 A4/1, 28 April 1987.

11. In mid-July 1987, a Soviet consular delegation visited Israel, the first official visit in over twenty years. Previous contacts between the two countries have included a short meeting between Israeli and Soviet negotiators in Helsinki on 18 August 1986 and a meeting between Prime Minister Peres and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in New York at the UN on 22 September 1986. Unofficial contacts continue.

12. At the instigation of King Hussein a secret meeting between President Asad and President Saddam Hussein took place during late April 1987 near Jordan's border with Syria and Saudi Arabia.

13. King Hussein has several reasons to encourage an Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement: to provide an insurance for Jordan lest the Iraqi regime topple, to bring about a more unified Arab world to contain Iran in the event of an Iranian victory, and to boost Jordan's role in Arab diplomacy and generate the goodwill of Arab states prepared to extend aid.

14. For this point see the discussion with Abba Eban reported in New Outlook, January February 1986, 25-28.