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.’

Rabin’s Labour Party fought the August 1992 election on a programme of moving beyond peace talks to peace-making; and it won a decisive victory. But the change of government did not yield the longed-for breakthrough in the talks with the Palestinians because Rabin’s initial offer of autonomy did not differ markedly from that of his predecessor. Rabin also continued to shun the PLO and to pin his hopes on the local leaders from the Occupied Territories, whom he considered to be more moderate and more pragmatic. He saw Arafat as the main obstacle to a deal and did his best to marginalise him. By the spring of this year, however, the peace talks had reached a dead end and Rabin concluded that the local leaders were little more than messengers of the PLO and that if he wanted a deal, he would have to make it with his arch-enemy.

Meanwhile the security situation on the ground deteriorated rapidly, and true to his reputation as a hawk, Rabin resorted to draconian measures. In December 1992, following the abduction and murder of an Israeli border policeman, he ordered the deportation of 415 Hamas activists to Lebanon. The effect was to increase popular support for the movement in the Occupied Territories at the expense of the PLO.

At a fairly early stage in the negotiations, Rabin was inclined to ditch the Palestinians altogether and strike a deal with Syria. Bilateral talks between Syria and Israel in Washington revealed that Syria, once the standard-bearer of radical Pan-Arabism, is now ready for total peace with Israel in return for a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Rabin therefore had to choose between a deal with Syria which would entail dismantling Jewish settlements on the Heights and a deal with the PLO which entailed no immediate territorial compromise nor the dismantling of Jewish settlements. He chose the second alternative.

Rabin knew that back in January Shimon Peres, his foreign minister and political rival, had established a secret channel for informal talks with PLO officials in Norway. At first Rabin showed little interest, but in the course of the summer the talks made considerable progress. It became clear that the PLO was bankrupt, divided and on the verge of collapse and therefore ready to settle for considerably less than the official Palestinian negotiators in Washington. Negotiations now began in earnest. Rabin and Peres directed the talks from Jerusalem, and Arafat from Tunis. Altogether 15 sessions were held over an eight-month period, without even the official Israeli and Palestinian negotiators being told about them.

The Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government is essentially an agenda for negotiations, governed by a tight timetable, rather than a full-blown agreement. Within two months of the signing ceremony, agreement should be reached on Israel military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho and within four months the withdrawal should be completed. A Palestinian police force, made up mostly of pro-Arafat Palestinian fighters, will be imported to maintain internal order, with Israel retaining overall responsibility for defence and foreign affairs. At the same time, elsewhere in the West Bank, Israel will transfer power to ‘authorised Palestinians’ in five spheres: education, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism. Within nine months, the Palestinians in the West Hank and Gaza are to hold elections to a Council, to take office and assume responsibility for most government functions except defence and foreign affairs. Within two years Israel and the Palestinians will start negotiations on the final status of the territories and at the end of five years a permanent settlement comes into force.

The shape of this settlement is not specified in the Declaration, which is also completely silent on vital issues such as the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the borders of the Palestinian entity, the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, and the status of Jerusalem. The reason for this silence is not hard to understand: if these issues had been addressed, there would have been no accord. Both sides took a calculated risk, realising that a great deal will depend on the way the experiment in self-government works out in practice. Rabin is strongly opposed to an independent Palestinian state but favours an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Arafat is even more strongly committed to an independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but he has not ruled out the idea of a confederation with Jordan.

On both sides of the divide, the deal has provoked strong and vociferous opposition from hard-liners. Both leaders have been accused of betrayal and a sell-out. Leaders of the Likud and of the nationalist parties further to the right have attacked Rabin for his abrupt departure from the bipartisan policy of refusing to negotiate with the PLO and charged him with abandoning the 120,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories to the tender mercies of terrorists. The Gaza-Jericho plan they have denounced as a bridgehead for a Palestinian state and the beginning of the end for Greater Israel. A Gallup poll, however, has confirmed growing support for the Prime Minister. Of the 1000 Israelis polled, 65 per cent said they approved of the accord, with only 13 percent describing themselves as ‘very much against’.

The Knesset approved it by 61 votes to 50, with nine abstentions. During the three-day debate, the Right appeared more seriously divided on the peace issue than the centre-left coalition, which was backed by five Arab members. The margin of victory, much greater than expected, was a boost to Rabin: it gave him a clear mandate to proceed.

Within the Palestinian camp the accord has also encountered loud but so far ineffective opposition. The PLO itself was split, with the radical nationalists accusing Arafat of abandoning principles to grab power. They include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, and the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh. Arafat succeeded in mustering the necessary majority in favour on the PLO’s 18-member Executive Committee but only after a bruising battle and the resignation of four of his colleagues. Outside the PLO, the deal aroused the implacable wrath of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who regard any compromise with the Jewish state as anathema.

Opposition to the deal from rejectionist quarters, whether secular or religious, was only to be expected. More disturbing is the opposition of mainstream figures like Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO ‘foreign minister’; and prominent intellectuals like Professor Edward Said and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Some of their criticisms relate to Arafat’s autocratic and secretive style of management, others to the substance of the deal. The most basic criticism is that, as negotiated, it does not carry even the promise of an independent Palestinian state. Farouk Kaddoumi has argued that the deal compromises the basic national rights of the Palestinian people; Edward Said that ‘all secret deals between a very strong and a very weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the latter.’ ‘Gaza and Jericho first ... and last’ was the damning verdict of Mahmoud Darwish.

There is no denying that the Palestinians have made painful concessions and that the road ahead is fraught with obstacles and dangers. But it is the only road that might eventually lead them to statehood. State-building is a slow and arduous process and the most difficult part is the beginning. When the Peel Commission proposed a tiny Jewish state in 1937, Chaim Weizmann, the veteran Zionist leader, thought ‘the Jews would be fools not to accept it even if it is the size of a table-cloth.’ The Palestinians, too, would be fools not to accept the offer of a patch of territory they can call their own, even though it is the size of Arafat’s keffiyeh. Arafat and his colleagues have pulled off a major diplomatic coup. They now face the much greater challenge of building the institutions of a state from the ground up in the Occupied Territories. Success in this may generate the momentum that will eventually carry them forward to full statehood after the five-year interim period.

Arab reactions to the accord have been rather mixed. Arafat got a polite but cool reception from the 19 foreign ministers of the Arab League who met in Cairo a week after the signing ceremony. Some member states, especially Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, were dismayed by the PLO’s solo diplomacy, which violated Arab pledges to co-ordinate their negotiating strategy. Arafat defended his decision to sign the accord by presenting it as the first step towards a more comprehensive peace in the Middle East and a final settlement which would involve Israeli withdrawal from all the Occupied Territories, including ‘Holy Jerusalem’. He sought to justify his resort to secrecy by arguing that almost two years of public negotiations under US sponsorship had reached a dead end. The Arab foreign ministers agreed that the accord was an important first step, even if they were not all agreed on the next step or the final destination.

Jordan is the country most directly affected. A day after the accord was presented to the world, the representatives of Jordan and Israel signed a common agenda for detailed negotiations aimed at a comprehensive peace treaty. This document bears the personal stamp of King Hussein, the king of realism who has steered his country through numerous regional crises since he ascended the throne forty years ago. In 1988, he turned over to the PLO the territorial claim to the West Bank, which Jordan had lost to Israel in the June 1967 war. In 1991, when the Madrid conference convened, he took the Palestinian negotiators into the peace talks as part of a joint delegation. The Jordanian-Israeli agenda was ready for signature last October, but the King preferred to wait until progress had been made between Israel and the Palestinians. He was extremely angry, therefore, when he found out that Arafat had kept him in the dark about his secret negotiations.

Even after Hussein had publicly endorsed the accord, his attitude remained somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, he felt vindicated, having argued all along that the Arabs would have to come to terms with Israel. On the other hand, the new unholy alliance between the PLO and Israel threatens Jordan’s traditional position as ‘the best of enemies’ with Israel if Israel and the Palestinian entity become close economic partners, the result could be inflation and unemployment on the East Bank, leading to political instability. More than half of Jordan’s 3.9 million people are Palestinian. If, for whatever reason, there is an influx of Palestinians from the West to the East Hank, the pressure will grow to transform the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into the Republic of Palestine. In short, Jordan’s survival as a separate state could be called into question.

The accord also affects Jordan’s progress towards democracy. This process got under way with the elections of November 1989 and provides the most effective answer to the challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another election was scheduled for 8 November. Now, thanks to Arafat’s deal, some Palestinians could end up voting for two legislatures, one in Amman and one in Jericho. As constitutional expert Mustapha Hamarneh explained to a foreign journalist, ‘these are extremely challenging times for Jordan. Yasser Arafat did not pull a rabbit out of his hat, but a damned camel.’ Under the initial shock, Hussein gave a clear signal of his intention to postpone November’s elections. Israeli assurances given at a secret meeting appear to lie behind the subsequent decision to go ahead as planned.

Personal diplomacy has always played a crucial part in relations between Jordan and Israel. Countless meetings have taken place acorss the battle lines between Hussein and Israel’s Labour leaders. One source estimates that the King has clocked up over a hundred man-hours in conversations with Labour leaders. This figure presumably includes the time spent with Golda Meir, who gained fame by her trip to Amman in May 1948, disguised as an Arab woman, in a vain attempt to persuade King Abdullah, Hussein’s grandfather, not to join in the Arab invasion of the soon-to-be-born Jewish state.

This time, too, the initiative for a high-level meeting came from the Israeli side. The daily newspaper, Ma’ ariv, quoted intelligence reports which said that the King felt ‘cheated and neglected’. ‘King Hussein’s political world has collapsed around him and the most direct means are required to calm him down’ Rabin was reportedly advised. Rabin spent several hours aboard the royal yacht in Aqaba on 26 September, conferring with the King and his advisers. He is said to have assured Hussein that Israel remains firmly committed to upholding his regime, that Jordanian interests will be protected, and that a future peace strategy would be closely co-ordinated with Jordan.

The Other key front-line leader, President Assad, greeted the accord with coolness verging on hostility and gave free rein to the dissident Palestinian groups based in Damascus to attack it. Assad is a cold and calculating realist, the Bismarck of the Middle East. His political career has been dominated by the desire to regain the Golan Heights, which Syria lost when he was minister of defence in 1967, and by the wider geopolitical contest with Israel for mastery in the region. Assad agreed to participate in the peace process started at Madrid but insisted all along on a unified Arab front leading to related peace treaties. For most of the last year, it looked as if Syria would lead the way. Now it has been upstaged by the PLO.

Assad feels that by striking a separate deal, Arafat has played into the hands of Rabin, who prefers to negotiate with the Arab partners individually and not as a bloc. Assad even compared Arafat’s actions to those of Sadat, whose separate deal with Israel led to Egypt’s isolation and vilification in the Arab world for nearly a decade. Israel alone benefits from the new deal, according to Assad. He suspects that it made this deal with a weak PLO in order to draw Jordan into its orbit, isolate Syria, and consolidate its own regional hegemony.

As a spoiler of plans not to his liking, Assad is greatly to be feared. But he has also made it clear that he is ready for peace with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He also holds the key to a peace settlement between Israel and Lebanon by virtue of his position as supreme arbiter of Lebanese politics. Both he and Rabin are playing for big stakes. The next move is Rabin’s.

On his return home from Washington, Rabin indicated that he wanted to go slow on the Syrian front, to give Israelis a chance to digest the sudden turnabout in their relations with the Palestinians. This would suggest a static policy of consolidating the new status quo, which he knows to be unacceptable to Syria. But there is an alternative policy which Peres is known to favour: of moving at full speed on the Syrian track in order to widen the accord with the PLO into a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Such a policy could help start a new political dynamic in the Middle East. If Syria and Lebanon make peace with Israel, most of the remaining Arab states will sooner or later follow suit. Militant Islamic movements which thrive on the conflict would then lose much of their appeal. The renegade regimes of Iraq and Libya would be encircled and Iran’s capacity for causing mischief largely neutralised. Above all, an important basis of Arab authoritarianism will disappear. For nearly half a century, the conflict with Israel has been used by soldiers and strongmen to capture and retain power. Israel, on the other hand, likes to present itself as a ‘light unto the nations’, a shining example of democracy in a sea authoritaranism. Now that it has reached an accord with the Palestinians, Israel is better placed to contribute to peace, stability and democracy throughout the region. And Rabin has his big chance to go down in history, not only as a great soldier, but also as a great statesman and peacemaker.