December 1995, Pages 16, 90-91
Affairs of State
Was Amman Summit to Serve the Cause of Peace or the Cause of Israel?
By Eugene Bird
Secretary of State Warren Christopher celebrated his 70th birthday only two days before boarding the flight to the Amman Economic Summit in late October. Although his mind was not on Amman, he never missed a beat during three days of parlaying with foreign ministers from all over the world at this conference designed to create irreversible underpinnings for the peace process and integrate the Israeli economy into a new and different Middle East.
From the time he boarded his aircraft in Washington, however, Christopher's mind was on Bosnia, a problem so horrendous, we were told, that he had spent eight hours the day before with advisers at a military base covering all the options that might develop at the Dayton, Ohio talks due to begin upon Christopher's return to the United States the next week.
Similarly, when the Bosnian prime minister turned up in Amman, it was clear that his mind was not on building a regional co-prosperity sphere in the Middle East, but on talks with world leaders and some State Department Balkan specialists who were accompanying the secretary of state about his tortured homeland. Showing how the Bosnian tragedy overshadowed all else, King Hussein and other leaders at the Economic Summit found time for talks with the Bosnian leader even in the midst of the hectic summit schedule.
In Amman's Palace of Culture, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev and others among the dozen presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who showed up could not all fit on the stage. Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and several others had to sit in the front row and be called to the podium from there.
In fact, the ceremony was late in starting in part, it was whispered among the delegates, because of last-minute insistence that Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, always in competition with each other, wanted equal treatment and time. No other country had two speakers, but the solution was to permit Rabin and Arafat and Peres to speak under the umbrella of Nobel Peace Prize winners and Peres was introduced as such besides his title as foreign minister.
It was the largest such gathering of foreign ministers and businessmen ever in the Middle East, and perhaps in the world in recent decades. The representative of Japan, a key recruit for the American-supported creation of a Middle East and North Africa Economic Development Bank, made it clear Japan was a full economic partner in the Middle East, as envisioned by the United States and other participants in the peace process.
The European Union, which fears America is trying to displace traditional European dominance of trade with the area, made it equally clear that it was not going to be involved in the Development Bank, but would find other institutions and other ways to help along the peace process. If the European Union and its individual members do not join the Development Bank, however, that institution will fall far short of expectations.
The hundreds of "regional" projects submitted to the conference in Amman were dominated by Egypt, with more than 175, and by Jordan and the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority submitted projects totaling an unrealistic $9 billion. The total of submissions by all parties to the conference, including some from the Maghreb states of North Africa, was almost $40 billion.
Aboard Air Force Two
Aboard Air Force Two, correspondents had a chance to ask Secretary Christopher about where such sizable money could be found, given the present cost-cutting atmosphere in America and the Middle East oil states.
"My question," the writer asked Christopher, "has to do with Congressman Sonny Callahan, Rabin, and Israel's Yossi Beilin who, along with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, all have indicated that perhaps a cutback in direct aid to Egypt and Israel could be both feasible and helpful. Is it possible for you to suggest that if both Israel and Egypt agree to a re-channeling of their aid from the U.S. to the Middle East and North Africa Development Bank, Saudi Arabia might then also join in the Development Bank?"
Christopher's answer: "We do not yet have our aid for the next fiscal year. That work still is going on. Until Congress reaches a final conclusion, and I'm optimistic we'll get the full request for Israel and Egypt, it would be unwise for me to comment on the perspective of a number of years ahead."
At the economic summit it was Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa who raised the key issue of whether Arab states attending the meeting should follow the U.S. lead in seeking to integrate Israel as much as possible into the economic life of the Middle East now, or whether it would be wiser to gain a more comprehensive political settlement before setting up elaborate economic institutions and opening trade and tourism between Israel and the Arab states. The Egyptian warned against unseemly haste, suggesting that Israel should be made to stop its nuclear program and settle the problems of its continued occupation of south Lebanon and the Golan before further economic initiatives are taken.
It is hard to see a Palestinian state free of deep dependence on Israeli goodwill.
Sensing that the Egyptian caution was directed specifically at host nation Jordan, King Hussein took the microphone to say that Jordan had always been in the forefront of the struggle for the Palestinians and had sacrificed much more than some states. He strongly supported moving forward now on all economic fronts, particularly the private sector.
In fact Jordan stands to gain much from the drive to open the Arab world to joint ventures with Israel. Part of Jordan's gain would be opening of joint ventures with American, Japanese and European firms, most of them not concerned with Israel at all.
In fact, the Economic Summit at Amman may have more success with intra-Arab projects and the re-integration of Jordan and Egypt into the economies of the other Arab states and the West than in integrating Israel into the Arab world. One $30 million loan was signed for establishing a cellular telephone network in Jordan, and several others involving no particular Israeli involvement also are in the works.
But the Palestinian economic future is tied to the Israeli economy in so many ways that it is hard to see a similar independent Palestinian economic development, or even a Palestinian state free of deep dependence on Israeli goodwill. The port in Gaza, the proposed international airport there, and roads connecting Gaza with the West Bank and Jordan all depend on Israel approving independent Palestinian economic activity.
Despite the Egyptian warning, almost all U.S. objectives at Amman were accomplished. These included establishment of a regional bank in Egypt, a regional tourist association, and a regional headquarters or business council secretariat for future summits to be set up in Rabat. Qatar is to be the site of the next economic summit in 1996.
Israel acquired no regional institutions but gained a much broader forum for its economic planning and the possible integration of its economy into the Middle East. Economists made much of the influence of Israel's much larger economy on economic development in Jordan and Egypt.
Christian Science Monitor correspondent in the Middle East John Battersby said that the difference between the Casablanca summit in 1994 and this one was that Israelis had begun to realize that they are not going to be able to march into the Arab economies and operate the way they do in Europe and America. At Casablanca they had thought that they could conclude direct bilateral deals and ignore the consequences of a flagging peace effort.
Still, the Israelis expected and received special treatment. For example, no one talked about the difficulty of joint ventures with the Palestinians in their West Bank ghettos—the six municipalities surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory and villages and with no room to expand or make industrial sites of any consequence.
Yet the summit festivities in Amman were impressive, with more than 150 American companies there to do business and more than 400 projects, the largest number from Egypt. The regional projects, especially those involving water and a joint Israeli-Jordanian international airport in the Eilat-Aqaba region, were the showpieces. And there was the signing of two communications joint ventures by AT&T and Sprint. But when Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan was asked if the absence of Syria and Lebanon would not be a hindrance to regional projects, he replied, "Of course certain regional projects cannot go forward without Syria and Lebanon—notably water."
A senior U.S. administration official was asked on the plane home, after three hours of futile talks between Christopher and Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad at Damascus, if the Amman summit, heavily and publicly opposed as premature by Syria, might spur Syria, Israel and Lebanon to speed up their peace negotiations in view of the rewards such a speed-up might bring. He replied that the subject had not been raised by Christopher with Assad, in that way at least.
Is this American peace process team tough enough on the partners in peace, particularly Israel and Syria now, to make real progress toward a comprehensive peace next year that would permit a new vision for the Middle East as described at Amman? They may not be.
In reflecting on various Department of State papers on how to negotiate with the Russians or how to negotiate with the Israelis, a former U.S. ambassador at the Amman meeting told the story of a tough moment in relations between then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
The Israelis expected and received special treatment.
The Israelis, the U.S. diplomat recounted, were interfering in the ongoing civil war in Lebanon by running operations into south Lebanon almost nightly—shooting up villages without provocation.
President Carter had been urging them to cease this activity, and his warnings got harsher and harsher. One night, the chargé in Tel Aviv received orders at midnight to rouse the prime minister and deliver a sharp presidential letter, the gist of which was: "My Dear Mr. Prime Minister: Either you remove your tanks and artillery from Lebanon by the end of the day or I will cut off military aid. Yours, Jimmy Carter."
Begin was known for his xenophobic tirades against American interference, so the American diplomat entered Begin's house at 2 a.m. determined not to show the letter, but simply to make an oral demarche in the strongest terms.
Begin listened and then gave the usual rambling explanation that Israel knew best. Finally, realizing Begin had no intention of doing anything, the U.S. diplomat drew forth the dreaded letter and asked Begin to read it.
Begin did, but then said, "I do not understand this, can you read it aloud to me?" When this was done the Israeli prime minister, who ordinarily drank nothing except ceremonial wine, went to his small bar. He poured two liberal whiskeys and handed one to the chargé. Then he gave his assurance that the Israeli tanks and artillery would be out of Lebanon by sunset.
The Israeli armor returned to Lebanon of course, but only after yet another American administration had started its inevitable learning curve about how to deal with Jewish nationalism. Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, Alexander Haig, failed that test and, as a result, Israel got itself and the U.S. into a horrible little war in 1982 that ended with the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. If General Haig had not accepted from General Sharon the same arguments Carter had rejected from Begin, there would have been no Israeli invasion and no loss of life in Beirut by Americans, to say nothing of the deaths of 25,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and 700 Israelis.
Now, the current peace process again is tilted, according to the Syrians and to many Palestinians writing about Amman and its "economics first" approach to building a new Middle East. The slant is toward letting Israel continue to reject in negotiations the principle underlying the signed Oslo agreements: Land for Peace.
Lebanese land still is occupied, despite clear signals from the Lebanese government and from Hezbollah itself that shooting into Israel would no longer take place if there no longer were Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon.
What seemed to be lost sight of at Amman was not the New Middle East, but the Old. The principle of ending Israeli occupation of Arab land, of containing Israel pretty much within its pre-1967 borders, and certainly within the Palestine Mandate international borders with Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, seems to have been forgotten by the current team in Washington. Yet it was the policy of President Bill Clinton's six Democratic and Republican predecessors, from 1967 to 1992.
When Secretary Christopher marveled in a speech to American businessmen in Amman at the warmth and natural relationship between King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin, "as if they had known each other for 30 years," a knowledgeable Palestinian-American businessman muttered: "They probably have." His reference to the many occasions when King Hussein had tried to reach out to the Israelis in London or other meeting venues seems almost to have been forgotten by a U.S. team that should know better.
Ambassador Dennis Ross now is in his sixth year as U.S. point man at the Middle East peace table. His deputy, Aaron David Miller, has been there even longer, since 1983. Almost long enough to remember the terrible Sabra and Shatila massacre that capped the performance of the Israeli army in Lebanon. The team knows how to orchestrate a huge conference on behalf of peace efforts and realizes the importance of the carrots of economic assistance to those who play the game of making peace now.
But do they skip stitches in weaving their fabric of peace by failing to take seriously the cry of Damascus that there will be no peace without full withdrawal from the Golan? All they talk about is getting President Assad to move to full peace with Israel. Full withdrawal, or even a timetable for phased withdrawals, do not seem even to be considered. All the arm-twisting, as it appears from the close outside, is being done with Syria. But it is only the Israelis, after all, who have something from which to withdraw.
And the American negotiators, as evidenced by their briefings on such trips, tend to disbelieve the seriousness of principles based on U.N. resolutions and solemn undertakings. Everyone in the Middle East, they seem to believe, is for sale. Just let us find the price.
U.S. diplomats did not get everything they wanted in Amman, but they got major new institutions on paper at least. Now they must try to convince reluctant donors and reluctant Republican congressmen to pay for these institutions. A few hundred million dollars as the U.S. contribution to the new bank is seen as no problem. It will be made over a period of five years. But business economists say that the area needs a much larger catalyst in terms of outside capital than even this nominal $5 billion. Estimates range up to $200 billion over 10 years, private and public.
Nor is raising such an incredible sum the only problem. It also is getting the attention of the tired old generals who run the nominally privatized Egyptian sectors and of those in charge of all the government-run economies throughout the area, including Israel.
Aid to Israel still provides close to 12 percent of its entire gross national product. The present rate of nominal growth for Israel cannot remain high without a day of reckoning concerning continued borrowing that is largely funding consumption, not capitalization. Nor is there any evidence of Israel's willingness to open its markets to low-priced competition in agriculture and dozens of other fields despite the efforts of American free trade treaty negotiators.
U.S.-Palestinian Free Trade Pact: Recognition?
One event triggered by the Amman summit is worth noting in particular: Signing of a free trade agreement between the Palestinian National Authority and the United States, announced in Amman. This amounts to a long step toward recognition of the Palestinian entity as a state.
In fact, both the formal government packages announced in Amman and the American business joint ventures are impressive, and not just on paper. Some could trigger substantial new funding from Western financial markets or from the World Bank and multilateral financial institutions.
Several tens of millions of dollars in done deals with Jordan alone will be announced eventually by the administration. And Egypt's economy may have another new surge as a result of the placement of the new bank in Cairo.
What was not done at Amman was linking of these economic benefits, which also include sharply increased (four times greater this past year) private investment in Israel itself, with the long overdue re-targeting of American economic aid to Israel and Egypt. Five billion dollars a year of re-targeted American aid poured into these regional projects could be the catalyst for much new private investment. This would be a welcome contrast to U.S. foreign aid's present results, which are continuing Israeli spending on West Bank settlements and postponing the day when Egypt puts its economic institutions at the service of its people rather than the military figures who run them.
The question of re-targeting U.S. foreign aid from Israel and Egypt to regional economic projects through a Middle East development bank was not addressed in Amman. Until it is, the Middle East and Europe probably will continue just to wait and see.
Eugene Bird is diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report and president of the Council for the National Interest.