Strong enemies for a stronger peace

Richard N. Haass

April 28, 1993|By Richard N. Haass

THE off-again, on-again Middle East peace talks illustrate diplomatic dictum: Before making war, make sure your enemy is weak, but if you want peace, it is better that your adversary is strong.

Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has acknowledged as much, saying that the Syrian strongman, Hafez al-Assad, is someone he can negotiate with.

Strong leaders make compromise stick despite domestic opposition. As a result, it is now possible to foresee a deal by which Israel would trade most or all of the Golan Heights for real peace and real security.

It is not so easy to envision an agreement with the Palestinians, however.

Although the rough outlines of Israel's approach have been known for some time -- a transitional period of self-government followed by negotiations on the Palestinians' final status -- it is not at all clear that a Palestinian leadership exists that is willing and able to compromise on anything less than the promise now of eventual Palestinian statehood.

Why not reach agreement first with just the Syrians?

Mr. Assad is no Anwar el-Sadat. It is almost certain that Mr. Assad, who considers himself the true keeper of the Arab flame, will require progress on the Palestinian front as part of a peace package.

Should Israel speed things up by negotiating directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization? I don't think so. The PLO has a legacy of terrorism. It's out of touch with many West Bank Arabs, focusing instead on the abstract rights of Palestinian exiles.

The principal route to peace for Israel is through leading Palestinians in the territories. Only nominally associated with the PLO, they also enjoy a separate power base among the 1.7 million Palestinians under occupation.

The Rabin government has recently taken such a step, allowing Faisal al-Husseini, a leading moderate from East Jerusalem, to head the negotiating delegation. This step needs to be complemented by other measures if Mr. Husseini and other moderates are to gain strength.

First, the Israelis should gradually reopen the territories, closed all month. The move was understandable: to enhance security by sharply reducing the flow of 125,000 Palestinians who enter Israel to work every day.

But keeping the West Bank closed off will only worsen its economy, further helping Palestinian radicals and Islamic fundamentalists.

Second, Palestinians need economic autonomy: greater access to foreign capital and markets, less Israeli regulation and licensing. Such economic and political change will weaken the appeal of radicals who feed off despair.

Third, Israel needs to improve its offer on Palestinian self-government. It can give the Palestinians control over domestic functions such as health, schools and courts.

Israel's proposal for a Palestinian police force is a welcome first step. Israel would reserve for itself authority over external security but would accept a mutual veto on land and water matters. Only by demonstrating that there is an alternative demonstrably preferable to the status quo will Palestinian representatives be able to settle for much less than they want.

Even this may not be enough. Palestinians have a large capacity for distraction by past problems resulting from the occupation rather than on negotiating new terms of the occupation. They do a poor job of building support for their accomplishments.

But Syria and Egypt should help by endorsing compromise, encouraging realism and not extremism.

Making peace with the Palestinians -- the right Palestinians -- will require that Israel work to make them stronger while agreeing to a deal that is more generous than what's on the table.

The only justification is that peace -- and ending an occupation that weakens Israel's Jewishness, democracy and security -- is worth it.

Richard N. Haass, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was the principal Middle East adviser on the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration.

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