Shape of an Arab-Israeli settlement

Joseph Lepgold & Bernard I. Finel

April 01, 1991|By Joseph Lepgold& Bernard I. Finel

PERHAPS RASHLY, President Bush has committed his administration to a quick solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He, of all Western policymakers, should know how difficult this will be. But several overlapping pressures and opportunities may increase the odds in his favor.

For one thing, he has explicitly linked the two dimensions of the conflict in a way that will be hard to disavow. Any settlement, he said, must be based on the "twin tests of fairness and security" -- fairness to the Palestinians, security for the Israelis. More concretely, the Palestinians' right to a homeland must be linked to an end to the state of war and economic blockade imposed by the Arab states.

This will require difficult choices for Israel. Half of its people rule out a settlement based on trading land for peace, and an electoral system that disproportionately rewards small parties makes it difficult to construct a coalition for compromise. While Americans should stay out of Israeli domestic politics, they can help to dissipate the sense of siege to which Israelis have been accustomed, and which keeps many of them from considering seriously the benefits as well as risks of compromise.

To do this, the U.S. should offer Israel an explicit defense pact. Both governments would gain from such a treaty: Israel would have more assurance of the contingencies under which it could get U.S. help, and the U.S. could condition the pact on implementation of a territorial settlement. There are two issues which might prevent an Israeli acceptance: lack of American credibility and the Israeli policy of fully autonomous self-defense.

The U.S. victory over Iraq shows that such a pact would be credible. If we were willing to fight for Kuwait, we would likely be willing to fight for Israel. Furthermore, the recent war has shown that the U.S. can defeat any potential threat to Israel.

The issue of autonomous self-defense is trickier. Israelis are justifiably proud of surviving in a hostile environment for over 40 years. It is an article of faith for many Israelis that the defense of their vital interests can be trusted to no one else. But this self-sufficiency is no longer as good as a plausible alternative. As part of an integrated Middle Eastern security structure whose hub would be the United States, Israel would be able to diffuse potential threats as well as be reasonably certain it could defeat them in battle. Only the second has been true until now.

The shape of a comprehensive settlement could be as follows: Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders, now guaranteed by the United States. The U.S. bases a small number of troops within Israel to symbolize the new relationship. A United Nations-supervised constitutional convention is called to which elected Palestinian representatives are sent. Such a vote permitting, the Palestinians could confederate themselves with

Israel and Jordan or opt for independent sovereignty. Finally, talks could begin on banning ballistic missiles and other instruments of mass destruction in the region.

There are several possible objections. The first is that the Israelis would pocket the defense pact and then refuse to budge on the Palestinian issue. This could be overcome simply by insisting that both the Palestinian state and defense pact would come into being at the same time.

Furthermore, Israelis could be reminded that the gulf war reinforced a key lesson about their vulnerability. Despite the possession of the West Bank, Scud missiles were able to land with alarming frequency in Tel Aviv. This suggests that possession of the occupied territories may have become a liability even in security terms. The diffusion of ballistic missile technology and the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons further strengthens this point. If this argument alone were internalized, only the religious right, a minority in Israeli politics, would seek to keep the territories.

The second general objection is that the Palestinians are not serious about peace. One might point to the glee with which they greeted news of Scud attacks on Israel. This behavior, while contemptible, could gradually give way to more moderate responses and demands if confidence-building measures -- such the reinstitution of civil government in the occupied territories -- were gradually implemented and especially if an indigenous leadership in the territories replaces the aging exiles.

Palestinian willingness to bargain should be at an all-time high. .. Not only has the intifada essentially failed, but one might see a parallel to Egypt after the 1973 war. In 1973, the Egyptians at first put their faith in the Soviet Union, but when the military situation turned against them, they realized that only the U.S. could deliver a face-saving cease-fire.

But would the American public be willing to make such a long-term, explicit commitment to Israel? The answer seems reasonably clear. Such a pact would simply formalize the implicit commitment Americans have made since Israel's inception. Having shown their stake in a stable gulf in Operation Desert Storm, Americans should extend to Israel the carrot that might finally produce a lasting peace.

Joseph Lepgold is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, where Bernard I. Finel is a Ph.D. candidate in government.

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