WASHINGTON — The essence of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East has been to foster an environment in which direct negotiations between Arabs and Israelis lead to peaceful coexistence. Based on the principles of mutual respect, trust and compromise, it has produced dramatic results over the past 20 years. But recent developments seriously jeopardize prospects for peace. Restoring trust--not the negotiation of a piece of paper--is the basic challenge that now confronts U.S. diplomats.
The Oslo agreements enabled Palestinians and Israelis to undertake a series of security, political and economic initiatives that not only gave each side a stake in the negotiations, but also in each other. This, in turn, helped make compromise politically acceptable. But the nascent trust that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had carefully nurtured has been replaced by mutual suspicion and hostility.
President Bill Clinton's decision to reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal for the United States to convene a "Camp David summit" that would abandon the Oslo framework and go straight to final-status talks was thus correct. Without the political will to make and live with the compromises that such a settlement will surely demand of both sides, a summit is doomed to failure.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have blamed each other for the collapsing peace process. In truth, they are both right. While living up to some provisions of the Oslo accords, both continue to violate their spirit.
Netanyahu has withdrawn Israeli forces from Hebron, released some Palestinian prisoners and reopened Israel's borders to Palestinian workers. But he has unilaterally initiated housing construction in areas of Jerusalem subject to final-status negotiations and declared how much territory Israel will give up in the next round of West Bank withdrawals without consulting Palestinian officials.
Netanyahu can certainly argue that he has acted within his rights. The Oslo accords do not impose restrictions on Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Nor do they mandate Israeli-Palestinian consultation in advance of Israeli decisions.
But the prime minister must have anticipated how the Palestinians would react to his bold moves. Surely, he knew that a consequence would be to undermine the confidence his Palestinian partners have in him and to raise questions about his true intentions. Did Netanyahu seek to antagonize the Palestinians? Is he trying to hold his increasingly fragile right-wing coalition together at the expense of peace?
Netanyahu and his Likud Party were elected to power because a majority of Israelis believed that he was more capable than Shimon Peres and his Labor Party of giving Israelis the peace and security they long for. Yet, since assuming office, Netanyahu has provoked one crisis after another, leading an increasing number of Israelis to wonder whether he truly believes that peace and security can be achieved.
It is an approach reminiscent of Menachem Begin's strategy in the 1970s and early '80s. Begin, Netanyahu's mentor, was deeply and emotionally attached to the areas of the West Bank known as Judea and Samaria. As a result, he consistently took actions that undercut U.S. and Egyptian confidence in his will to implement the Egypt-Israel treaty and resolve the Palestinian problem through face-to-face negotiations, as envisioned in the Camp David accords. Throughout, Begin strenuously contended that Israel was abiding by the letter of Camp David, even forcing Washington to convene an international arbitration panel to resolve Israeli-Egyptian border disputes.
Yassir Arafat, too, has lost confidence among Israelis. Most Israelis now doubt his trustworthiness as a peace partner. The Palestinian president has yet to fulfill several of the most important obligations he undertook, such as closing Palestinian Authority offices in Jerusalem and revoking that part of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
But it is Arafat's penchant to acquiesce to, and perhaps promote, terrorist attacks and street violence that has convinced Israelis that he will readily give a "green light" to armed struggle when it suits him. Israelis believe that Arafat unleashed Hamas and Islamic Jihad in early March by suggesting that he would not oppose terror attacks against Israelis. This impression was immediately reinforced when the Palestinian Authority released a Hamas leader from prison and a Tel Aviv cafe was bombed by Hamas.
Arafat also appears to be reacting much as he did when confronted with Begin's intransigence. Rather than staying put, working with the Israelis and trying to stabilize the situation on the ground, he is traveling around the world trying to drum up international support to pressure Israel to make concessions.