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THE WORLD : MIDDLE EAST

How to Return to the Path to Peace

November 26, 2000|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times

NEW YORK — In fewer than four months, a seemingly imminent conclusion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict turned, first, into stalemate, then into an intifada that appears to have placed final peace out of reach.

What went wrong? What should be done in the future?

Any analysis must start from two realities that produced the peace process in the first place and have not changed. Neither side can defeat the other. The Palestinians cannot win because Israel is too strong militarily, and Israel cannot win because the Palestinians are too strong politically. Both sides are condemned to coexistence. The issue is whether this comes about as a military stalemate or from an agreement.

Failure to keep these fundamental realities in mind was a principal cause of the negotiations debacle. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had convinced themselves that the peace process resulted from nothing less than a Palestinian conversion to peace in the abstract, rather than from the pursuit of historic Palestinian objectives by less violent means. This is why both Clinton and Barak ignored Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's repeated warning that the time was not yet ripe for a summit. Whatever one's judgment of Arafat's motives, it is important to understand the deep philosophical gulf between the way Israel and the United States define peace, and the way the Palestinians do.

Israel regards peace as a culmination of the struggle for a homeland, defining it as normalcy that ends claims and determines a permanent legal status. To Palestinians--and to many Arabs--Israel is an intrusion in "holy" Arab territory. The territorial compromises proposed by Israeli and U.S. mediators are viewed as amputations of their cultural and theological patrimony.

When Barak opened the Camp David summit by offering Arafat something like 92% of the pre-1967 West Bank territory, he was going far beyond any previous Israeli prime minister. But to the Palestinians, the 1967 borders represent a concession in themselves, fully acceptable, if at all, only to the most dovish among them. The majority of Palestinians treat territorial compromise the way France accepted Germany's annexation of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871: as an imposition to be reversed at the first opportunity.

Thus, what Barak considered a huge concession was, to Arafat, a minimum offering he would not be able to present to his constituency as a significant achievement. If he risked accepting it at all, he was bound to treat it as a stage in the ultimate fulfillment of Palestinian demands that he has been careful not to make explicit.

It is also why the Israeli demand at Camp David that the quid pro quo be a formal renunciation of all future claims-- the essence of reasonableness to Americans and Israelis--proved impossible for Arafat. In the face of 3 million Palestinian refugees, he could give no such assurance without losing the support of a significant segment of his constituency.

Arafat was no doubt reinforced in his stonewalling by the precipitate Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, which he probably interpreted as weakness rather than generosity, and by Clinton's eagerness for an agreement, which may have made him believe that, if he hung tough, the Americans would wring more concessions from Israel. In any event, when Israeli territorial concessions were made conditional on Palestinian "compromises" regarding holy places, the looming stalemate headed for a blowup.

Paradoxically, the focus on finality proved the principal obstacle to agreement. The linkage of holy places to territorial disputes expanded the negotiation from a Palestinian to a pan-Arab, even a pan-Islamic, issue, simultaneously extending Arafat's influence and limiting his flexibility. So long as the controversy concerned territory, moderate Arab leaders could treat it as a Palestinian problem and even urge some compromises. But once that religious issue was on the table, no Arab leader could ignore the looming fundamentalist threat to his own rule.

But the emergence of a Palestinian state is no longer an Israeli bargaining card. Statehood had been inherent in Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's offer of Palestinian autonomy at the first Camp David summit in 1978. It was implicit in the Oslo accords. Even today, Arafat is treated as a head of state when he travels. Within a measurable time, a Palestinian state will be recognized by most nations, including Europe, even if America holds back for a while. Israeli ambivalence on this subject gives Arafat a permanent means of pressure. Once the state has been declared, the challenge will be coexistence with Israel -- which, intifada or not, remains the option neither party will be able to avoid indefinitely.

It's crucial to draw the right lessons from the experience. These are:

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