Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1995, pgs. 26-28

The Outcome of the Peace Talks—Two Views

There Will Be an Arab-Israeli Peace Within Three Years

By Hermann Fr. Eilts

We are going to have an Arab-Israeli peace within the next two to three years, perhaps even earlier. When I read today some of the difficulties that exist between Syria and Israel or between Israel and the Palestinians in trying to achieve a peace, I get the feeling that, while the problems are not exactly analogous, I've seen it all before. It's worth remembering that between the time we started an effort to get peace between Egypt and Israel in 1973, and when a peace was finally signed in 1979, six long years went by. In those six years, time and time again there were setbacks, but eventually something happened that made it possible.

I think the two sides are on a track from which they cannot really recede. They can stop the movement of the train for a period of time, and it may be a long period of time, but eventually they are going to have to go forward, in part because the Cold War is no longer present. As I look back on the long, agonizing history of the Arab-Israeli dispute, I'm conscious of how often the existence of the Cold War played a part. It made it possible for one side or the other to seek to play the Soviets off against the United States. That's no longer possible. They can't use the Soviets. So the parties are left to themselves and to the United States, if the United States is willing to play some sort of an active role.

Israel and the Palestinians both have the capacity to create obstacles on the road to achieving what I think they both want, and that is peace. But, let's face it, the Israelis don't want Gaza. If the Israelis could have found a taker for Gaza, other than the Palestinians, they would cheerfully have given it up years ago. Gaza is 25 miles long, 10 miles deep, has 850,000 people, and you see in every direction something that has to be done. I know of few places in the world other than Bangladesh where the economic and societal problems are as great. Small wonder that Moshe Dayan, years ago, right after we got the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and were moving in the direction of Palestinian autonomy, talked about Gaza first. Mr. Begin, at the time, did not accept it. But the idea of Gaza being one of the early elements in the Palestinian settlement is an old one, and that is really why the declaration of principles in the Oslo Agreement spoke of Gaza and Jericho.

There are, of course, problems. From a Palestinian point of view, there is the Israeli settlement problem. I have to say that I ask myself why the Israeli government wants to keep those settlements in Gaza. They serve no useful purpose and contain only 4,000 to 4,500 people. This is a different matter from settlements in the West Bank, where you can make an argument for or an argument against them. But in Gaza the continued existence of those settlements and the need for Israeli armed forces to protect access to them, works against trying to create a Palestinian government, under Yasser Arafat or whoever else it might be in due course.

Why are they kept there? I suppose primarily because the Israeli government of Mr. Rabin finds itself in a difficult domestic situation. The settlers are activists. The Labor Party and its alignment is weak in the Knesset. Mr. Rabin has a one-vote majority and even that depends upon the five Arab members voting for him. Obviously, he doesn't like the idea of winning when he has to depend on Arab votes. So he's afraid to tackle the settlements.

The argument for many Israelis is Eretz Israel, the recreation of biblical Israel. Gaza was never part of Eretz Israel, nor was the Golan part of Eretz Israel. So, in a sense, when one is talking about Gaza settlements or when one is talking about Golan settlements, one is not talking about the biblical issue of historical Israel. In any case, the settlements haven't been removed.

I've known Yasser Arafat for some time. I have regard for him. He's no fool. He was a remarkable national liberation leader. But it's one thing to be a national liberation movement leader and it's another thing to have the responsibility of governing any place, let alone as difficult a place as Gaza. He's got the additional problem of deep division between the Gazans and the West Bankers. He also has to deal with the expectations of the Palestinians who were with him in Tunis, who were loyal to him over all of these years, and who expect to play a significant role in the government. But those people who are from Gaza and the West Bank say, "We're the ones who know what the problems of the country are, not these outsiders who have lived in Tunis for all this time." So there are deep divisions, and Arafat finds it understandably difficult to resolve them.

The two sides are on a track from which they cannot really recede.

And then there is this interesting question of the Palestinian police. I've argued for a long time that the success or failure of this whole experiment will be pinned, in part, upon the ability and willingness of the Palestinian police force to maintain law and order, including the security of the settlements. Granted, the Israeli military forces are protecting the perimeters, but the symbolism of it is important. Until a little over a year ago, most of the Palestinian police force were part of the Palestine Liberation Army. They were trained to fight as military people, not serve as policemen. We in our own country have learned over the years that crowd control and riot control require a certain set of skills and procedures that are quite different from military action. And I feel for these policemen who are put in the position of having to maintain law and order in a location that is contentious and tempestuous almost by definition.

In addition there are, of course, the Hamas and the Jihad groups who are opposed to the whole idea of a settlement with Israel. I have sympathy for Arafat's effort to try and bring them into government. But their more radical members seem unwilling and are creating problems for Arafat with the Israelis by assassinations, by the bombing of buses, and by the kidnappings.

The Israelis are asking Arafat to discipline Hamas. The Clinton administration is asking him to discipline Hamas. I would like to see him discipline Hamas, but at the same time you're asking him in a sense to engage in civil war, because a significant percentage of the population of Gaza is on the Hamas-Jihad side and the Israelis, in some respects, are not being helpful at all.

I'm not being critical of the Israelis; they have reason to be worried about Hamas, but the irony is that when Hamas was first begun, the Israeli Mossad was providing money to Hamas as a means of weakening the influence of the PLO. They learned very quickly that this was not a wise policy, but they helped create a monster that is now making the problem of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement more difficult.

And then, of course, one moves to the West Bank. Empowerment in education has gone beyond Jericho. Empowerment in other areas is about to be extended. All of this has to do, in part, with the issue of the election of a Palestinian Assembly. Now when I read the positions of the parties, the Palestinians on the one hand and the Israelis on the other, on what this Assembly is to be, this is exactly what we were facing in the late 1970s in connection with West Bank autonomy.

Is the Assembly to be a legislature with the right to enact law or is it to be an administrative body? At the time, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, representing the Arabs, argued that it should be a legislative body. The Israelis said it should be a small executive body with no legislative power. The Israelis are saying there must be no Hamas members. I can appreciate their view that Hamas members would cause disruption. On the other hand, if there is to be any representative quality about this Assembly, you have to have Hamas included.

The additional problem, of course, is money. The international community committed itself to provide the Palestinians $2.4 billion over five years. To date these commitments are not being kept and what is being paid is barely enough for administrative expenses. Nothing yet for infrastructure development, for projects, the kind of things that create jobs. And in a place like Gaza, and to a lesser extent the West Bank, in the absence of a dynamic economic development program there is understandable disenchantment on the part of the Palestinians with what peace means.

We blame Arafat for not introducing accounting measures. That's one argument the international community has. The other is the uncertainty of Arafat's ability to maintain law and order. You don't put a lot of money into a place if there is an uncertainty about law and order. Here we come back to this vicious circle. Arafat still wants to get a more moderate element of Hamas, and perhaps Jihad, into government and he has not yet found a way to do so.

In the meantime, all of these incidents come up which create problems for Mr. Rabin on his side of the fence. It has been reported that if there were an election in Israel tomorrow, Likud would win hands down. There is obviously not going to be an election tomorrow, but at the same time this constrains the Israeli government from taking some of the steps that should be taken.

All of this is very negative, I agree. But I would argue that Arafat, Rabin and Shimon Peres—and, by the way, Peres deserves a great deal of credit in all of this—will find their way out. They'll find some way to withdraw the Israeli troops and to have the elections. Whether the elected counsel is a legislative or an executive one, they'll do it. Obviously, one would like the effort to move more quickly, but it won't. However, it will move in the right direction.

The Syrian-Israeli Front

You could make an argument that the Israeli government should have decided to give priority to Syria. Syria is the major Arab state which still is nominally at war with Israel. The Syrians were the great obstructionist force to an Arab-Israeli peace, from 1973 on. In so many instances they made commitments to us and then did not honor them, for reasons that have to do with their domestic situation. But you nevertheless could make a case that it would have been wise to focus on the Syrian-Israeli front. Instead, the Palestinian thing was done. That was in part because of the Oslo Agreement.

Both the Syrians and the Israelis know what has to be done. Israel has to leave all of the Golan. Syria has to give Israel two things: full normalization of relations, including diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, and, the Golan Heights have to be demilitarized. That demilitarization may have to involve the presence of U.S. troops. This raises eyebrows among some members of our Congress and among some Americans, but I would remind them that in Sinai from the time of the peace treaty, in 1979, we have had American troops in the peacekeeping operation, not under U.N. auspices but under multilateral auspices, and it has worked beautifully. If there is a peace treaty I would argue that this is a contribution that the United States should and must make to maintain that peace.

Despite the news reports that senior Israeli and Syrian diplomats and military officers have met and come to no agreement, in fact they already are discussing whether the time period for withdrawal should be two years or one and a half. They already are negotiating what the width of the demilitarized zone should be. Should it be equal, 10 kilometers for both sides, or, given the smallness of Israel, should it be 10 kilometers on the Syrian side and 5 kilometers on the Israeli side?

That the Syrians and the Israelis are talking about these technical details suggests to me that both sides recognize that there is going to be a peace treaty. In Syria itself one sees more and more evidence of an effort on the part of the Syrian government to condition the Syrian population to the possibility of peace. When Farouk Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister, speaks about a warm peace with Israel, this is much more than any Egyptian leader has ever said.

There is a great deal of rhetoric that goes around the Middle East. This has been one of the problems. And there is a lot of rhetorical symbolism that goes around. For example, the Palestinians call their authority the Palestinian National Authority. The Israelis call it the Palestinian Authority so that there is no suggestion that there will be a national state. There is nothing new to me in this. In the end it works itself out, if there is an active U.S. role.

U.S. Policy

If I have one criticism of U.S. policy it is this. All of the other peace agreements in the past—Sinai I, Golan I, Sinai II, Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty—came about not as the result of direct talks but as the result of the United States recognizing that direct talks have a limitation and the need for the U.S. to put on the table ideas of its own. Not to impose them, because you can't impose, but to give the parties something to chew on. That's the way the Camp David Agreement was signed. That's the way the peace treaty with Egypt was signed. The Clinton administration, and this was already true with the Bush administration, takes the position that you can't work out anything without direct talks.

I'm all for direct talks, but there comes a point when direct talks don't make any further progress. At that point I would suggest it is essential, if the United States has a real interest in peace in the Middle East, and I would argue that it does, that you put on the table again, as past administrations—Republican and Democratic—have done, ideas on how points of continuing controversy can be resolved.

I think the administration is going to be forced into that kind of situation with respect to the Palestinians and Israelis and with respect to Syria and Israel. What is important is that you get a peace. The procedure should not be the critical element.

So I think we are moving in that direction. Having been involved in Arab-Israeli peace and war matters for so long, despite all the difficulties that currently exist, I have never been as optimistic as I am today that we are really moving in the direction of peace, although I am not jumping up and down about immediate prospects.

Nobody ought to believe that peace is going to mean friendship and brotherly love. That's not going to happen that quickly. Arabs and Israelis, especially young people on all sides, have seen each other through the prism of the enemy and attitudes don't change that quickly.

Despite their peace treaty, there is not a great deal of brotherly love between Egyptians and Israelis. It's too bad; I'd like to see the peace somewhat warmer. The important point, though, is that it is a peace.

At the lower levels of society you will have very little contact. That's to be expected. But in the more elite levels of society contact will begin. And you can have peace without it necessarily being brotherhood, fraternity, close friendship, etc.

That objective, a hope that many good Christians might have, ought to be put aside. Mutual recognition and some measure of mutual respect will have to suffice. The important thing is to get a peace that all sides respect. And I happen to believe that we're on the track, despite all of the difficulties that we have read about, toward a real peace between the State of Israel and the various Arab countries and states. However, if Likud comes back into power or if something happens to Arafat, the peace process will, of course, be set back significantly. 

Hermann Fr. Eilts, a career foreign service officer, was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and to Egypt. He was the principal link between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and American presidents and secretaries of state from 1973 to 1979. After retiring from the foreign service in 1979 he became Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. This article was adapted from a talk he gave at the University of South Florida on Jan. 11, 1995.

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