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all its limitations and ambiguities, the Declaration of Principles for
Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho marked the mother of all breakthroughs in the
century-old conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Future generations will look back on Monday, 13 September 1993, the day the Declaration was signed on the South Lawn
of the White House and sealed with the historic hand-shake between Israeli
prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, as one of the most
momentous events in the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century. In
one stunning move, the two leaders have re-drawn the geo-political map of the
agreements recently concluded between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization constitute
a major breakthrough in the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and a revolution in the politics of the Middle East. There were two separate agreements. The first, signed by PLO chairman
Yasser Arafat in Tunis and prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem on Friday, 10 September, provided for mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. The second, signed on the South Lawn of
the White House on Monday, 13 September, with President Bill Clinton acting as
master of ceremonies, was a Declaration of Principles for limited Palestinian
self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. All the publicity focused on the signing of the
second agreement but without the first it would not have been possible.
together, the two agreements fully merit the over-worked epithet `historic'
because they reconcile the two principal parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This conflict has two dimensions: one is the inter-state conflict between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, the other is the
clash between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. The latter has always been
the heart and core of the Arab-Israeli-conflict. Both national movements,
Jewish and Palestinian, have denied the other the right to self-determination
in Palestine. Their history is one of mutual denial and mutual
rejection which was pithily summed up by Golda Meir's remark that there is no
such thing as a Palestinian people. Now mutual denial has made way for mutual
recognition. Israel has not only recognized the Palestinian people but has formally
recognized the PLO as its representative. The handshake between Yitzhak Rabin
and Yasser Arafat at the signing ceremony was a powerful symbol of the historic
reconciliation between the two nations.
historic reconciliation was based on a historic compromise: acceptance of the
principle of the partition of Palestine. Both sides, at the same time, accepted the principle of partition as
the basis for the settlement of their long and bitter conflict, as the basis
for peaceful co-existence between themselves. Partition is not, of course, a
new idea. It was first proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937 and again by the
United Nations in 1947 but it was rejected on both occasions by the
Palestinians who insisted on a unitary state over the whole of Palestine. They insisted on all or nothing and they ended up
with nothing. By the time the Palestinian National Council endorsed the
principle of partition and a two-state solution in 1988, Israel, under a Likud government, rejected the idea, laying
claim to the whole of the Biblical Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria.
accepting the principle of partition at the same time, the two sides have
abandoned the ideological dispute as to who is the rightful owner of Palestine and turned to finding a practical solution to the
problem of sharing the living space. That the idea of partition has finally
been accepted by the principal antagonists would seem to support Abba Eban's
observation that people are capable of acting rationally when they have
exhausted all the other alternatives.
Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation has far-reaching implications for the other
dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Originally, the Arab states got
involved in the Palestine conflict out of a sense of solidarity with the
Palestine Arabs against the Zionist intruders. Continuing commitment to the
Palestinian cause has precluded the Arab states, with the notable exception of Egypt, from extending recognition to the Jewish state. One
of the main functions of the Arab League which was established in Alexandria in 1945 was to assist the Palestinians in the
struggle for Palestine. After 1948, the League became a forum for coordinating
military policy and for waging political, economic and ideological warfare
against the Jewish state. In 1974 the Arab League recognized the PLO as the
sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Now that the PLO has
formally recognized Israel, there is no longer any compelling reason for the Arab states to
continue to reject her.
an important taboo has been broken. PLO recognition of Israel legitimizes peace between the rest of the Arab world
and Israel. It is an important landmark along the road to Arab
recognition of Israel and the normalizing of relations with her. Egypt which was first to take the plunge back in the late
1970s feels vindicated and elated by the breakthrough it helped to bring about.
When Mr Rabin stopped in Rabat on his way
home from Washington, he was received like any other visiting head of
state by King Hassan II of Morocco. Jordan allowed Israeli television its first ever live report
by one of its correspondents from Amman. A number of
Arab states, like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, are seriously thinking about the establishment of diplomatic relations
with Israel. And the Arab League is actively considering the
lifting of the economic boycott which has been in force since Israel's creation. Nothing is quite the same in the Arab
world as a result of the Israel-PLO accord. The rules of the game in the entire
Middle East have radically changed.
change is no less marked in Israel's approach to her Arab opponents than in their
approach to her. Zionist policy, before and after 1948, proceeded on the
assumption that agreement on the partition of Palestine would be easier to achieve with the rulers of the
neighbouring Arab states than with the Palestinian Arabs. Israel's courting of conservative Arab leaders, like King
Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, was an attempt to bypass the local Arabs, to avoid
having to address the core issue of the conflict. Recognition by the Arab
states, it was hoped, would enable Israel alleviate the conflict without conceding the right of
national self-determination to the Palestinians. Now this strategy has been
stood on its head. PLO recognition of Israel is expected to pave the way to wider recognition by
the Arab states from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. And the
agreement on Palestinian self-government, it is hoped, will be the anvil on
which a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be forged.
agreement ended the two-year-old deadlock in the American-sponsored Middle East peace talks which began at the Madrid conference in October 1991. The collapse of communism
and the defeat of Arab radicalism in the Gulf War provided the backdrop to this
renewed attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. In the bilateral talks
which followed the Madrid conference, there were two tracks: an Israeli-Arab track and an
Israeli-Palestinian track. The basis of the negotiations on both tracks was UN
Security Council resolution 242 and the principle of swapping land for peace.
But this principle was not accepted by Yitzhak Shamir, Likud leader and Israeli
prime minister at the time. `Shamir', as Avishai Margalit presciently observed,
`is not a bargainer. Shamir is a two-dimensional man. One dimension is the
length of the Land of Israel, the second, its width. Since Shamir's historical
vision is measured in inches, he won't give an inch.'
Labour Party, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, fought the August 1992
election on a programme of moving beyond peace talks to peace-making, with
priority to the Palestinian track, and it won a decisive victory. But the
change of government in Israel did not yield the longed-for breakthrough in the talks with the
Palestinians because Rabin's initial offer of Palestinian autonomy did not
differ markedly from that of his predecessor. Rabin also continued to shun the
PLO and to pin his hopes on the local leaders from the occupied territories
whom he considered to be more moderate and more pragmatic. He saw Arafat as the
main obstacle to a deal on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories and
did his best to marginalize him. By the spring of this year, however, the peace
talks reached a dead end and Rabin concluded that the local leaders were little
more than messengers of the PLO and that if he wanted a deal, he would have to
cut it with his arch-enemy.
the peace talks were going nowhere slowly, the security situation on the ground
deteriorated rapidly. True to his reputation as a security hawk, Rabin resorted
to draconian measures. In December 1992, following the abduction and murder of
an Israeli border policemen, Rabin ordered the deportation of over 400 Hamas
activists to Lebanon. Hamas is the Islamic resistance movement which is vehemently opposed
to any compromise with the Jewish state. The brutal and arbitrary deportation
of the Hamas activists, however, only increased popular support for the
movement in the occupied territories at the expense of the PLO.
fairly early stage in the negotiations, Rabin was inclined to ditch the
Palestinians altogether and to strike a deal with Syria. Having embarked on the peace talks with a Syria-last
position, he became a convert to a Syria-first position. The bilateral talks
between Syria and Israel in Washington revealed that Syria, once the standard-bearer of radical Pan-Arabism, is
now ready for total peace with Israel in return for total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Rabin therefore had to choose between a deal with Syria which entailed complete withdrawal and the
dismantling of Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights and a deal
with the PLO on interim self-government for a period of five years which did
not entail any immediate territorial compromise or the dismantling of Jewish
settlements. He chose the latter.
knew that Shimon Peres, his foreign minister and political rival, had
established a secret channel for informal talks with PLO officials in Norway back in January. The key players in these talks were
two Israeli academics, Dr Yair Hirschfeld and Dr Ron Pundak and PLO treasurer,
Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, better known as Abu Alaa. The Norwegian foreign minister
and a Norwegian social scientist acted as generous hosts and gentle mediators.
At first Rabin showed little interest in these secret talks. But in the course
of the summer the talks made considerable progress, away from the glare of
publicity and political pressures. It became clear that the PLO was bankrupt,
divided and on the verge of collapse and therefore ready to settle for
considerably less than the official Palestinian negotiators in Washington. Two senior officials from the Foreign Ministry were
asked to accompany the capable amateurs and the negotiations began in earnest.
Rabin and Peres directed the talks from Jerusalem while Arafat directed them from Tunis. Altogether 15 sessions of talks were held over an
eight-month period, all behind a thick veil of secrecy. Even the official
Israeli and Palestinian delegations were not informed about the secret channel
which eventually produced the greatest political coup in the region's modern
Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government is essentially an
agenda for negotiations, governed by a tight timetable, rather than a
full-blown agreement. Within two months of the signing ceremony, agreement on Israel's military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho should be reached and within four months the
withdrawal should be completed. A Palestinian police force, made up mostly of
pro-Arafat Palestinian fighters, will be imported to maintain internal order in
Gaza and Jericho, with Israel retaining overall responsibility for defence and foreign affairs. At
the same time, elsewhere in the West Bank, Israel will transfer power to `authorized Palestinians' in
five spheres: education, health, social welfare, direct taxation and tourism.
Within nine months, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are to hold elections to a Palestinian Council to take office and
assume responsibility for most government functions except defence and foreign
affairs. Within two years Israel and the Palestinians commence negotiations on the
final status of the territories and at the end of five years the permanent
settlement comes into force.
shape of the permanent settlement is not specified in the Declaration of
Principles but is left to negotiations between the two parties during the
second stage. The Declaration is completely silent on vital issues such as the
right of return of the 1948 refugees, the borders of the Palestinian entity,
the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza and the status of Jerusalem. The reason for this silence is not hard to understand: if these issues
had been addressed, there would have been no accord. Both sides took a
calculated risk, realizing that a great deal will depend on the way the experiment
in Palestinian self-government works out in practice. Mr Rabin is strongly
opposed to an independent Palestinian state but he favours an eventual
Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Mr Arafat is even more strongly committed
to an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its
capital, but he has not ruled out the idea of a confederation with Jordan.
both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the Rabin-Arafat deal has
provoked strong and vociferous opposition on the part of the hard-liners. Both
leaders have been accused of a betrayal and a sell-out. Leaders of the Likud
and of the nationalistic parties further to the right have attacked Mr Rabin
for his abrupt departure from the bipartisan policy of refusing to negotiate
with the PLO and charged him with abandoning the 120,000 settlers in the
occupied territories to the tender mercies of terrorists. The Gaza-Jericho plan
they denounced as a bridgehead to a Palestinian state and the beginning of the
end of Greater Israel. A Gallup poll,
however, confirmed growing support for the prime minister. Of the 1,000
Israelis polled, 65 per cent said they approved of the peace accord, with only
13 per cent describing themselves as `very much against'.
Knesset approved the accord, at the end of a debate which stretched over three
days, by 61 votes for, 50 against and nine abstentions. During the debate, the
right appeared more seriously divided on the peace issue than the centre-left
coalition which was backed by five Arab members of the Knesset. The margin of
victory, much greater than expected, was a boost to Mr Rabin and his peace
policy. Given the importance he attaches to having a `Jewish majority' for his
policy, he was greatly reassured by the fact that more Jewish members voted for
than against. The vote gave him a clear mandate to proceed with the
implementation of the Gaza-Jericho plan.
the Palestinian camp the accord has also encountered loud but so far
ineffective opposition. The PLO itself was split, with the radical nationalists
accusing Arafat of abandoning principles to grab power. They include the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, and the
Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef
Hawatmeh. Arafat succeeded in mustering the necessary majority in favour of the
deal on the PLO's 18-member Executive Committee but only after a bruising
battle and the resignation of four of his colleagues. Outside the PLO, the deal
aroused the implacable wrath of the militant resistance movements, Hamas and
Islamic Jihad, who regard any compromise with the Jewish state as anathema.
to the deal from rejectionist quarters, whether secular or religious, was only
to be expected. More disturbing is the opposition of mainstream figures like
Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO `foreign minister' and prominent intellectuals like
Professor Edward Said and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Some of the criticisms
relate to Arafat's autocratic and secretive style of management. Others relate
to the substance of the deal. The most basic criticism is that the deal
negotiated by Arafat does not carry the promise, let alone a guarantee, of an
independent Palestinian state.
criticism takes various forms. Farouk Kaddoumi argued that the deal compromised
the basic national rights of the Palestinian people. Edward Said wrote in The
Guardian on 9 September: `All secret deals between a very strong and a very
weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the
latter.' `Gaza and Jericho first ... and last' was Mahmoud Darwish's damning verdict on the deal.
is no denying that the Palestinians have made painful concessions and that the
road ahead is fraught with pitfalls, obstacles and dangers. But it is the only
road that might eventually lead them to statehood. State-building is a slow and
arduous process and the most difficult part is the beginning. When the Peel
Commission proposed a tiny Jewish state in 1937, Chaim Weizmann, the veteran
Zionist leader, thought `the Jews would be fools not to accept it even if it is
the size of a table-cloth.' The Palestinians too would be fools not to accept
the offer of a patch of territory they can call their own, even though it is
the size of Mr Arafat's keffiyeh. Mr Arafat and his colleagues have pulled off
a major diplomatic coup. They now face the much greater challenge of building
the institutions of a state from the ground up in the occupied territories.
Success in carrying out this task may generate the momentum that would eventually
carry them forward to full statehood after the five-year interim period of
self-government. There are no short-cuts.
reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian accord have been rather mixed. Mr Arafat
got a polite but cool reception from the 19 foreign ministers of the Arab
League who met in Cairo a week after
the signing ceremony in Washington. Some member states of the League, especially Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, were dismayed by the PLO's solo diplomacy which
violated Arab pledges to coordinate their negotiating strategy. Mr Arafat
defended his decision to sign the accord by presenting it as the first step
towards a more comprehensive peace in the Middle East. The interim agreement, he
said, is only the first step towards a final settlement of the Palestinian
problem and of the Arab-Israeli conflict which would involve Israeli withdrawal
from all the occupied territories, including `Holy Jerusalem.' He sought to
justify his resort to a secret channel by arguing that the almost two years of
public negotiations under US sponsorship had reached a dead end. The Arab foreign
ministers agreed with Mr Arafat that the accord was an important first step,
even if they were not all agreed on the next step or the final destination.
Jordan is the country most directly affected by the
Israel-PLO accord. A day after this accord was presented to the world, in a
much more modest ceremony in the State Department, the representatives of Jordan and Israel signed a common agenda for detailed negotiations
aimed at a comprehensive peace treaty. This document bears the personal stamp
of King Hussein, the king of realism who has steered his country through
numerous regional crises since he ascended the throne forty years ago. In 1988
the king turned over to the PLO the territorial claim to the West Bank which Jordan had lost to Israel in the June 1967 war. In 1991, when the Madrid conference convened, he took the Palestinian
negotiators into the peace talks as part of a joint delegation. The
Jordanian-Israeli agenda was ready for signature last October, but the king
preferred to wait until progress had been made between Israel and the Palestinians. Great therefore was his anger
when he found out that the PLO chairman had kept him in the dark about his
secret negotiations with Israel.
after the king had studied the Israel-PLO accord and given it his public
endorsement, his attitude remained somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, he felt
vindicated, having argued all along that the Arabs would have to come to terms
with Israel. On the other hand, the new unholy alliance between
the PLO and Israel threatens Jordan's traditional position as `the best of enemies' with Israel. If Israel and the Palestinian entity become close economic
partners, the result could be inflation and unemployment on the East Bank,
leading to political instability. More than half of Jordan's 3.9 million people are Palestinian. If, for
whatever reason, there is an influx of Palestinians from the West Bank to the East Bank, the pressure will grow to transform the Hashemite
Kingdom of Jordan into the republic of Palestine. In short, Jordan's very survival as a separate state could be called
Israel-PLO accord also affects Jordan's progress towards democracy. This process got under
way with the elections of November 1989 and it provides the most effective
answer to the challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another election was
scheduled for 8 November. Now, thanks to Mr Arafat's deal, some Palestinians
could end up voting for two legislatures, one in Amman and one in Jericho. As constitutional expert Mustapha Hamarneh explained to a foreign
journalist: `These are extremely challenging times for Jordan. Yasser Arafat did not pull a rabbit out of his hat,
but a damned camel.'
the initial shock of the Israel-PLO accord, King Hussein gave a clear signal of
his intention to postpone November's national elections. Israeli assurances
given at a secret meeting appear to lie behind the subsequent decision to go
ahead as planned. Personal diplomacy had always played a crucial part in the
conduct of relations between Jordan and Israel. Countless meetings had taken place across the battle
lines between the `plucky little king', as Hussein used to be called, and Israel's Labour leaders after 1967. One source estimates
that the king had clocked up over a hundred man-hours in conversations with
Labour leaders. This figure presumably includes the time he spent with Mrs
Golda Meir who had gained fame by her trip to Amman in May 1948, disguised as an Arab woman, in a vain attempt to persuade
King Abdullah, Hussein's grandfather, not to join in the Arab invasion of the
soon to be born Jewish state.
time, too, the political overture for a high-level meeting came from the
Israeli side. The Israeli daily newspaper, Ma'ariv, quoted intelligence
reports which said that the king felt `cheated and neglected' over the accord.
`King Hussein's political world has collapsed around him and the most direct
means are required to calm him down', Mr Rabin was reportedly advised. Mr Rabin
spent several hours aboard the royal yacht in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba on Sunday, 26 September, conferring with the king and
his advisers. Mr Rabin is said to have assured the king that Israel remains firmly committed to upholding his regime,
that Jordanian interests will be protected in dealing with the Palestinian
issue, and that future peace strategy would be closely coordinated with Jordan.
other key `front-line' leader, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, greeted the Israel-PLO accord with coolness verging
on hostility and gave free rein to the dissident Palestinian groups based in Damascus to attack it. President Assad is a cold and
calculating realist, the Bismarck of the Middle East. His political career has been
dominated by the desire to regain the Golan heights which Syria lost to Israel when he was minister of defence in 1967 and by the
wider geopolitical contest with Israel for mastery in the region. Assad agreed to
participate in the peace process started at Madrid but insisted all along on a unified Arab front
leading to related peace treaties. For most of the last year, it looked as if Syria would lead the way. Now Syria has been upstaged by the PLO.
feels that by going off secretly on his own and striking a separate deal, Mr
Arafat has played into the hands of Mr Rabin who prefers to deal with the Arab
partners individually and not as a bloc. Assad even compared Arafat's actions
to those of Anwar Sadat whose separate deal with Israel led to Egypt's isolation and vilification in the Arab world for
nearly a decade. Israel alone benefits from the new deal, according to Assad. He suspects that Israel made this deal with a weak PLO in order to draw Jordan next into its orbit, isolate Syria, and consolidate its own regional hegemony.
the spoiler of plans which are not to his liking, President Assad is greatly to
be feared. But he has also made it clear that he is ready for full peace with Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He also holds the key to a peace settlement between Israel and Lebanon by virtue of his position as the supreme arbiter of
Lebanese politics. Both he and Mr Rabin are playing for very big stakes. The
next move is up to Mr Rabin.
his return home from the historic meeting in Washington, Mr Rabin indicated
that he wanted to go slow on the Syrian front to give Israelis a chance to
digest the sudden turn-about in their relations with the Palestinians. This
would suggest a static policy of consolidating the new status quo which he
knows to be unacceptable to Syria. But there is an alternative policy which Mr Peres is
known to favour: that of moving at full speed on the Syrian track in order to
widen the accord with the PLO into a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli
a policy could help start a new political dynamic in the Middle East. If Syria and Lebanon make peace with Israel, most of the remaining Arab states will sooner or later follow suit.
Militant Islamic movements which thrive on the conflict between Israel and the Arabs would lose much of their appeal. The
renegade regimes of Iraq and Libya would be encircled and Iran's capacity for causing mischief would be largely
neutralized. Above all, an important foundation of Arab authoritarianism will
disappear. For nearly half a century, the conflict with Israel has been used by Arab soldiers and strongmen to
capture and retain power. Israel, on the other hand, likes to present itself as `a
light unto the nations', as a shining example of democracy amidst a sea of
authoritarianism. Now that it has reached an accord with the Palestinians, Israel is better placed to contribute to peace, stability
and democracy throughout the region. And Mr Rabin has his big chance to go down
in history not only as a great soldier, but also as a great statesman and
 Avishai Margalit, `The Violent
Life of Yitzhak Shamir', New
York Review of Books, 14 May 1992.
Herald Tribune, 18-19 September 1993.