Palestinians may be missing historic opportunity

July 30, 2000|By Robert J. Lieber

WASHINGTON -- There comes a time when a nationalist movement, if it is to achieve real success, must relinquish its most all-encompassing objectives in order to attain what is possible.

This was true for David Ben-Gurion when he accepted partition of Palestine in 1947-1948 in order to gain statehood for Israel. But at Camp David last week, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership have missed a historic opportunity.

Instead of winning an independent Palestinian state, financial support from leading countries of the world, a stable working relationship with Israel, and real peace, they returned empty-handed. And if, in September, Mr. Arafat does unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood, as he has threatened to do, it will be a weak, poor, truncated state, and one which continues to impoverish his own people while locking them into a struggle with Israel in which they cannot prevail.

How did this happen? In large part, the answer stems from a series of damaging choices by Mr. Arafat and those around him.

First, the Palestinians have misread the role of the United States. From the perspective of the Middle East, America's status as the sole superpower makes it appear omnipotent. Because of this stature, Palestinian leaders (and sometimes other Arab leaders) have assumed that a time would come when the U.S. would simply impose a solution on Israel, thus giving the Palestinians what they themselves could not achieve either by negotiation or by force.

The United States has played an indispensable role in brokering Arab-Israeli agreements, most notably the Egyptian-Israeli peace in 1978-1979, but ultimately it is with Israel, not Washington, that the Palestinians must come to terms.

Second, Mr. Arafat appears to have painted himself into a corner by failing to educate his own people about realistic terms for peace. Since the Oslo accords and the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn Sept. 13, 1993, he has been reluctant to communicate the kind of pragmatic understandings that any agreement must realistically involve.

By contrast, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and much of the Israeli public have gradually breached a series of taboos (independent Palestinian state, relinquishment of Gaza and most of the West Bank, some form of shared sovereignty in parts of Jerusalem) that once seemed inconceivable. As a result, whether deliberately or not, Mr. Arafat created conditions in which he could claim to his Israeli and American counterparts that anything other than achievement of his maximum demands would not be acceptable to his own people.

Third, Mr. Arafat is no Anwar Sadat.

The late Egyptian leader, by his compelling statements calling for peace and reconciliation and by his dramatic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, sent a clear signal both to Israelis and Egyptians. The impact on Israeli thinking was dramatic, and it made possible the return of the Sinai precisely because Sadat's commitment to peace was utterly unambiguous.

Mr. Arafat has conspicuously failed to reach out in this manner. In speeches to Palestinian audiences, in school curricula, in the press, in his orientation toward armed struggle as a lever against Israel, and in grudging and haphazard compliance with terms of the Oslo agreements, Mr. Arafat has fostered a climate of skepticism and distrust. Ironically, by failing to take a tougher attitude toward terrorism in 1996, he may even have helped to elect Benjamin Netanyahu.

What about post-Camp David II?

Just as economists are wary of making predictions containing both a number and a date, observers of the Middle East should be equally cautious. An agreement on some of the key final status issues, especially borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, without an agreement on all of them, is unlikely. In essence, "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

Before Camp David, the Israelis had given up tangible things (control of land, cities, people, the creation of large Palestinian security forces), while Mr. Arafat's concessions have been largely confined to matters of process and timing. Israeli agreement to compromises on the major issues is likely only if the majority of the public sees these as bringing about an end to belligerency and to all Palestinian claims against Israel. Otherwise, compromises are likely to be regarded as eroding Israel's position without bringing the desired objective of peace with security.

In the meantime, increased acrimony and violence are real possibilities. But neither Israel nor the Palestinians have good alternatives to eventual resumption of negotiations. If and when talks do resume -- whether in weeks, months or years -- resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unlikely to succeed unless and until Mr. Arafat or his successors make different and more realistic choices than they have so far been willing to do.

Robert J. Lieber is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University.

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