Arafat’s Camel

Avi Shlaim

Despite all its limitations and ambiguities, the Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho marked a major breakthrough in the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. In one stunning move, Arafat and Rabin have redrawn the geopolitical map of the region.

The Arab-Israeli divide was one not merely between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, but also between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. This last has always been at the heart of the conflict. Both national movements, Jewish and Palestinian, have denied the other the right to self-determination in Palestine. Now mutual denial has made way for mutual recognition. Israel has not only recognised the Palestinian people but has formally recognised the PLO as its representative.

This historic reconciliation was based on a historic compromise: acceptance by both sides of the principle of the partition of Palestine. Partition is not a new idea. It was first proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937 and again by the United Nations in 1947, but was rejected on both occasions by the Palestinians, who insisted on a unitary state of Palestine. Having wanted all or nothing, they ended up with nothing. When the Palestinian National Council finally endorsed the principle of partition and a two-state solution, in 1988, Israel, under a Likud government, rejected the idea, laying claim to the whole of the Biblical Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. By accepting the principle of partition the two sides have now abandoned the ideological dispute as to who is the rightful owner of Palestine and turned to finding a practical solution to the problem of sharing the living space.

The reconciliation has far-reaching implications for the other dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Originally, the Arab states got involved out of a sense of solidarity with the Palestinians against the Zionist intruders, and a continuing commitment to that cause has precluded them, with the notable exception of Egypt, from extending recognition to the Jewish state. One of the main functions of the Arab League, established in Alexandria in 1945, was to assist the Palestinians. After 1948, the League became a forum for co-ordinating military policy and for waging political, economic and ideological warfare against Israel. In 1974, it recognised the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Now that the PLO has formally recognised Israel, there is no longer any compelling reason for the Arab states to continue to reject it.

This is an important landmark along the road to a normalising of relations. Egypt, first to take the plunge back in the late Seventies, feels vindicated and elated by the break-through it helped to bring about. Jordan allowed Israeli TV its first ever live report by a correspondent in Amman. A number of Arab states, like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, are seriously thinking about establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. And the Arab League is actively considering lifting the economic boycott which has been in force since Israel’s creation.

The change is no less marked in Israel’s approach to her Arab opponents. Zionist policy, before and after 1948, proceeded on the as sumption that agreement on the partition of Palestine would be easier to achieve with the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states than with the Palestinians. Israel’s courting of conservative leaders, like King Hussein and President Sadat, was an attempt to bypass the local Arabs, to avoid having to address the core issue. Recognition by the Arab states, it was hoped, would enable Israel to case the conflict without conceding the right of national self-determination to the Palestinians. Now this strategy has been stood on its head. If things go as planned, agreement on Palestinian self-government will be the anvil on which a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be forged.

The agreement ended the two-year-old deadlock in the American-sponsored Middle East peace talks, which began in Madrid in October 1991. In the bilateral talks which followed the Madrid conference, there were two tracks: an Israeli-Arab track and an Israeli-Palestinian track. The basis of the negotiations in both was UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the principle of swapping land for peace. But this principle was not accepted by Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader and Israel’s prime minister. ‘Shamir’, as Avishai Margalit presciently observed, ‘is not a bargainer. Shamir is a two-dimensional man. One dimension is the length of the Land of Israel, the second, its width. Since Shamir’s historical vision is measured in inches, he won’t give an inch.’

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