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Will Israel's U.S. Friends Press Her for Peace?

November 09, 1987|JEROME M. SEGAL | Jerome M. Segal is a research scholar at the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland. He is one of the founders of Washington Area Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

The United States' failure to secure Israel's agreement to a multilateral conference on the Middle East brings to light two facts that our policy-makers have refused to face: The United States and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir do not have the same objectives; and in real political terms, the United States lacks any useful levers for affecting Israeli policy.

For almost 20 years the United States and Israel have hidden the disparity of their objectives behind U.N. Resolution 242. That resolution, passed in 1967, speaks of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." It calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war, and for recognition of the rights of all states in the region to live at peace. 242 also has been taken as implicit recognition of Israel.

For all the world, including the United States, 242 has always meant that Israel should give up most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories containing 1.4 million Palestinians and occupied by the Israeli army for the last 20 years. Prime Minister Shamir has a different interpretation. In his view, Israel satisfied 242 when it withdrew from the Sinai after the Camp David accords with Egypt.

Shamir's interpretation reflects the long-term objective of the revisionist wing of the Zionist movement. Even before the creation of the state of Israel, the revisionists opposed the idea of territorial compromise. Thus they were opposed to the original U.N. resolution that sought to solve the issue by partitioning Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. But only in 1967 did Israel come to control all of Palestine, and only in 1977, with the election of Menachem Begin, did the revisionists come to power.

So long as the Arab world could be portrayed as irrevocably hostile to Israeli existence, so long as attention could be focused on side issues such as terrorism, the fundamental question of territory could be ignored. Today, things have changed considerably. Israel has a 10-year-old peace treaty with Egypt. Jordan is prepared to enter into negotiations. Israel is a nuclear power. And the Palestine Liberation Organization has called for the exchange of land for peace.

Long-standing divisions are now acute and in the open. Shimon Peres, the former prime minister and now foreign minister, calls for an international conference and is prepared to agree to some relinquishment of territory. Shamir rejects both, and popular opinion increasingly favors his position; after 20 years of occupation, many Israelis view it as completely natural that Israel should rule over the West Bank Palestinians.

The United States remains a believer in the process of peace-seeking: that once negotiations begin, they will take on a life of their own and some compromise on territory will be found. Shamir believes the same thing. This is exactly why he opposes a conference. Thus, George Shultz's visit last month, and George Shultz's failure.

On the basic issue of exchanging territory for peace, there is no point in talking to Shamir; his views are an inherent part of a political identity formed over a lifetime. Ultimately, he cares more about holding onto the territories than he does in a peace settlement. And we lack any means of converting him. We give Israel so much already that there is hardly anything more to give. And politically, there is no credibility to any threat to withhold American aid.

Where does American policy go now? There is perhaps one alternative, but it requires more political courage than we are used to. The United States should make clear that it is prepared to act without prior Israeli approval. For instance, the United States does not need Israeli permission to tell the U.N. Secretary General to convene the international conference. Presented with a fait accompli, the Israeli right wing would find it very difficult to continue to block Israel's participation in peace talks.

But this is high-stakes poker. How could even the threat to convene peace talks be made credible? Back in 1975, in an effort to pressure Israel on disengagement in the Sinai, President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger announced a "reassessment" of U.S. Middle East policy. Within weeks, 76 senators had signed a letter to Ford stating that no such reassessment was needed. When Yitzhak Shamir thumbs his nose at George Shultz, it is because he counts on the staying power of this political reality in the United States.

But this may change. There is an emerging crisis of conscience for the American Jewish community. American Jews are much closer to Peres than to Shamir; their favorite Israeli is Abba Eban, who has supported the call for negotiations based on mutual recognition, self-determination and a compromise on territory.

Heretofore, American Jews have refused to publicly take sides in Israel's policy debates. Today it is different. The American Jewish Congress recently threw its weight behind Peres' call for an international conference. They stated: "We are persuaded that the risks, both to Israel and to ourselves, of announcing our views are far less than the risks of remaining silent and external to this historic debate." Other organizations are also taking sides.

Given the failure of Shultz's efforts to reason with Shamir, the real issue confronting Israel's friends in America is: Are we prepared to allow our government to press Israel hard in the direction of a peace settlement, or do we stand by and lose the best opportunity for peace in a decade?

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