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Arab-Israeli conflict: a step or two behind reality.

So far, Arab-Israeli peace talks have proceeded with depressingly little result. Just as disturbing, there appear to be few reasons why they might be expected to move faster this year. From Jerusalem, Drew Harrison gives a gloomy prognosis.

JUST OVER A YEAR ago, at the opening of the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, the government and others spoke of their target of one year for negotiations to establish the groundwork for a functional autonomy for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It is uncertain whether they really suffered from such undue optimism or whether the pretence sufficed. A year later more American and Western peacemakers have come to see that the conflict between Arabs and Israel remains intractable for real and not imagined reasons relating to very different perceptions of security, identity and conflicting national consensus.

Although the cases of states making peace and dividing territory with independence movements are far and few between - indeed, in the West, such irredentist claims are denounced as secessionist - it is clear that regional integration between the Israeli model of government and society and that of the surrounding Arab states is a distant dream.

The Israeli position has been carefully outlined from the outset, in terms of the composition of the delegations with whom Israel was prepared to meet, to the items on the agenda acceptable for discussion, and the order in which they could be raised. The Palestinians first had to focus on gaining public sympathy for the justice of their case, and largely succeeded in this crucial undertaking through the gifted elocution of their delegation's spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi.

But the failure of the Palestinians' optimal scenario - to have the Americans hand back control of the Territories on the basis of a just Palestinian claim left them with few concrete proposals on the path to autonomy. They were condemned by officials of the US State Department for posturing and pursuing a strategy of public relations. Since then, they have worked with various technical teams, mostly composed of foreign academics with little understanding of the vagaries of life in the Territories, to outline a list of needs and a plan of action.

The principal source of conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian positions is over the power of the administrative body. The Israelis want a council that can issue orders, akin to the military government currently in place. The Palestinians want a full legislative assembly entitled to draft laws on par with (or superceding) the British Emergency Rules, Jordanian laws and Israeli military orders still in effect.

The Palestinians also seek control of resources and territory, while the Israelis have always spoken of a functional autonomy, dealing with people and not land and resources. Most recent estimates calculate that between 106,000 to 120,000 Israeli settlers now reside in the West Bank and Gaza. Another 150,000 live in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian autonomy as envisaged by the Israelis, therefore, does not apply to the Territories (which hold large numbers of Israelis) but to Palestinian inhabitants. After the three-year interim period in which the autonomy will be tested, questions of final sovereignty will be addressed. But as long as the Palestinians see that their minimum requirements for control, authority and jurisdiction are denied by Israeli negotiators, the autonomy talks - and therefore the peace process - will remain deadlocked.

The Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, speaks of autonomy in terms of the Camp David Accords - "a transitional period that will give to the Palestinians what they have never achieved: their right to run their daily lives by even an elected body, if they chose to have it." The issue of elections is a sensitive one, as municipal elections were the main element of the original peace plan of the Shamir government in 1989.

Israelis stress the high voter participation in elections held in universities, trade unions and the chambers of commerce as evidence of how successful representative elections to choose an administrative council could be. But the modalities of the election and the mandate of the Administrative Council pose two major stumbling blocks, raising again the thorny issues of East Jerusalem and territorial autonomy.

There is some evidence of Israeli negotiators courting favour with Palestinians to keep them in the talks until a settlement is hammered out with Jordan and Syria. The most promising developments in both the bilateral and multilateral talks have been in establishing points of agreement with the Jordanian regime. Reports of the illness of King Hussein, who underwent cancer surgery in the United States last autumn, offer an explanation as to Jordan's rush to seek an accommodation with Israel that would guarantee an orderly transition of power crucial to the survival of the state. Israeli and Jordanian negotiators now discuss openly what they talked of in private for years, of cooperative ventures to desalinate water and to generate hydroelectricity.

Rumours of Jordan making a separate peace led the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, to rush into discussions with Jordanian authorities in order to exact a promise of no separate peace. For the moment, the Jordanians say they agree. But they have their own critical interests to consider and are unlikely to allow themselves to be used by Palestinians as a bargaining chip with Israel in the autonomy talks.

Ironically, the original Madrid Conference joined the Palestinian and Jordanian delegations in recognition of the fact that the solution in the Territories needed the cooperation and involvement of Jordan. Palestinians insisted on separating into two teams to reinforce the distinction between Palestine and Jordan, but at the same time they unleashed the Jordanian delegation, entitling it to pursue its own agenda. According to Rabin, "the problem is to what extent the Palestinians and the Jordanians will be realistic to know that we deal with an interim arrangement for a transitional period that leaves all the options open and we are not now dealing with the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Syria and Lebanon are the inseparable twins of the peace process. Indeed, Lebanon's attendance at the bilateral and multilateral talks remains contingent upon Syrian participation. On Lebanon's agenda is the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, long stated as the precondition for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, although the signing of a security pact between the two ensures that Syrian troops can remain indefinitely. The renewal of violent attacks by Hizbollah across the border into Israeli territory led to sharp reprisals in November, and questions were raised about the role of Hizbollah as a spoiler for the Syrians in the peace talks.

The issue between Israel and Syria is clear and simple - total withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a total peace. The Israelis do not accept a total withdrawal and speak of a variety of compromises, including leasing the land for several decades. The Syrians reject the notion of a total peace that would include the exchange of ambassadors, tourism and trade.

Syrian interest in the whole process is linked to the assurance by US officials that Israel is sincere about returning the land and that peace with Syria was viewed as vital to Israel's security interests. But it seems that Syria is only offering an armistice, and with the military build-up it has undertaken in the past two years, along with its bellicose Iranian ally, such an agreement seems like a preface to another war rather than a foundation for peace.

Israeli settlers on the Golan lack the nationalist ideology that fires settlers of the West Bank and Gaza, and they speak of a willingness to forfeit their homes and vineyards for the sake of peace. As Rabin points out, relinquishing Quneitra brought calm and stability for the Golani residents, more so than that experienced by Israeli residents along the Lebanese border. Considering the degree to which the Syrians observed the terms of disengagement, the Israeli pullback was warranted. Clearly, the prime minister is preparing public opinion for a further pullback, asserting that appropriate security guarantees and the establishment of peaceful relations will accompany any accord.

For the moment, the talks seem stalled too, as Syria refuses to define its terms for a full peace and relations after an Israeli withdrawal. Mention of a possible Rabin-Assad summit has been dismissed as premature, when Rabin concluded that the time was not yet ripe for such a high-level meeting, and that progress in the peace process could best be achieved on other fronts.

Multilateral talks got under way late last year in Paris on economic matters and in Ottawa on the question of refugees, the two most important issues for Palestinians. Israel decided to join the Ottawa talks and even granted the Palestinians a concession in accepting a member - or former member - of the Palestine National Council, Mohammed Hallaj, as a delegate. Such controversies continue to underscore just how sensitive direct PLO participation remains, although after every round of talks a number of delegation members travel to Tunis to brief their leadership.

Utmost of Arafat's concerns is how to give the PLO a more central role in the whole process. His fear that the Palestinian delegation, because of its members' intimate knowledge of the situation in the Territories, of the factional division of public opinion and of the Israelis, may displace the leadership role of the PLO in Tunis is palpable.

In a recent and rare interview with an Israeli magazine, The Jerusalem Report, Arafat demonstrated his caution and concern by rejecting the deferred endorsement of UN Resolution 242 of the Israelis rejection of the five-year interim period outlined at Camp David, and rejection of elections for an administrative body. He says he would accept elections for a full legislative parliament, but even Palestinians doubt his desire for elections that could divide the leadership role held by the "sole legitimate representative" among Islamic and leftist factions.

After the plane crash in Libya that Arafat survived last year, Palestinian leaders in the Territories urged him to name a successor, so that the organisation will not splinter into an open power struggle. He appears to have refused. Many believe there will be no PLO after Arafat, and that his power base was a unique coalition no one else can keep together. Israeli leaders are hoping otherwise, as Rabin has begun distinguishing between Arafat, the terrorist leader, and the PLO, that body of Palestinian exiles counselling the delegation to the talks.

Movement in the peace process seems likely to be advanced only by external factors, such as the impetus of the new US administration, the death of a key Arab leader, a build-up of weaponry that leads into another regional war, or some other cataclysmic event. Israel watches as its neighbours rearm with Western assistance. It notes how Saudi Arabia, ally of the West in the Gulf war, increases its support for Islamic fundamentalist groups throughout the region. And it monitors the rise of violence in the Territories, where the daily mass demonstrations of the intifada have given way to a marked rise in the use of firearms and roadside bombs. Once again, the political process is one step behind the reality on the ground.


GDP: S|pounds~354bn; $15.8bn GDP per capita: $1,253 Population: 12.6m GDP growth: 1992 6.5%; 1993 5.5% Inflation: 1990 19.4%; 1991 25.0%

* Economic reform will progress step by step. Do not expect anything dramatic. The investment law of 1991 has mapped out the path ahead, but its implementation remains the real test. Import substitution, export promotion, technology transfer and the creation of managerial expertise and jobs are the top priorities -- to be approached with as little disruption as possible. That means problems since there are few signs of a willingness to liberalise the antiquated financial sector or to undertake a coherent privatisation programme.

* Public and private investment is running at a noticeably high level. The external trade position is stronger than for many years and agricultural output is increasing fast. GDP will expand, but inflation will remain a problem as the Syrian pound is discretely devalued. The agricultural sector, accounting for about a quarter of GDP, remains the most important target for government efforts. The long-term goal is self-sufficiency in cereals and other essential crops.

* A peace settlement with Israel still seems a long way off. Even if it is reached, Syria will continue to devote an inordinate proportion of resources to the military in order to bolster its role as a major power in the Levant.
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Title Annotation:Outlook 1993; includes related article
Author:Harrison, Drew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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