Israeli Politics and Middle East Peacemaking

Avi Shlaim

Journal of Palestine Studies, 24:4, Summer 1995, pp. 21-31

    Israel, Henry Kissinger once remarked, has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. Although this remark involves an obvious over-simplification, it raises an interesting question about the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy in Israel. Domestic politics influence foreign policy in all countries, of course. In the case of Israel, however, the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy is particularly profound because foreign policy involves existential questions and questions of national identity which weigh much more heavily on the mind of the Israeli public than on that of most other countries.

    The relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy is not a one-way street. Just as internal political forces influence foreign policy decisions, developments in the sphere of external relations feed into the domestic political scene in a never-ending process. The purpose of this article is to examine the interplay between domestic politics and Middle East peace-making since the June 1992 elections at which the Labour Party regained power after fifteen years of dominance by the right-wing Likud bloc. The main focus of the article is on the eventful year which began with the signature of the Israel-PLO accord on 13 September 1993 and ended with the signature of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan on 26 October 1994.

    There is a broad consensus in Israel, encompassing both the Likud and the Labour parties, which places national security above peace with the country's Arab neighbours. This consensus militates against making concessions for the sake of peace that are liable to undermine Israel's security. No similar consensus, however,exists regarding peace agreements that do not appear to detract from Israel's security. To be more precise, there is no consensus on whether or not Israel should be prepared to trade the territories it captured in June 1967 for peace with her neighbours.

    Here lies the most fundamental difference between the foreign policy outlook of the Likud and that of the Labour Party. Likud is committed to the ideology of Greater Israel which claims the West Bank - Judea and Samaria in its terminology - as an integral and inalienable part of the Land of Israel. Labour is a pragmatic party which places security above all other values. For Likud, the Land of Israel is sacred; for Labour Israel's security is sacred. Likud's approach to the occupied territories is governed primarily by ideological imperatives; Labour's approach is governed primarily by security considerations. To say this is not to suggest that Likud is indifferent to security or that Labour is untouched by the ideal of Greater Israel but simply to point to the different emphases that colour the world view of these two parties.

    On the Palestinian question, until very recently, there has been a curious convergence between Likud and Labour. Both parties have suffered from a general Israeli blind spot when it came to the Palestinians. Both parties have been extremely slow to come to terms with the reality of Palestinian nationalism. Both parties, when in power, displayed a distinct preference for dealing with the rulers of Arab states rather than the representatives of the Palestinian people. Both parties were vehemently opposed to negotiations with the PLO and both remain opposed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

    The Labour Party advocated territorial compromise over the West Bank after 1967 but what it had in mind was compromise with King Hussein of Jordan, not with the Palestinians. The infamous statement that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people came not from the Likud but from Labour's Golda Meir. Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Mrs Meir as prime minister after the October War, stood before a joint session of Congress in 1976 and declared that Israel would not commit suicide by meeting with the PLO. He insisted that the Palestinians were not the core of the conflict and that to consider them as such was `to put the cart before the horse'.

    This solid national consensus began to crack after the Middle East peace conference convened in Madrid in October 1991. Israel's position in the post-Madrid peace talks featured prominently in the general elections campaign of June 1992. Yitzhak Shamir represented the Likud's traditional line of refusing to bow to external pressure, of defending the integrity of the Land of Israel and of supporting an ever-growing number of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Yitzhak Rabin represented the Labour Party's traditional line of territorial compromise, of trading land for peace, provided it did not jeopardize Israel's security. He favoured a freeze on settlement activity and promised a considerably more positive attitude towards the peace talks than that of his political rivals, with priority to reaching an agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

    The verdict of the electorate was unusually clear-cut: it rejected the territorial expansionism of the Likud and opted for the territorial compromise advocated by the Labour Party. Likud's representation in the 120-member Knesset fell from 40 to 32, while that of the Labour Party increased from 39 to 44. At long last, after fifteen years either in opposition or in a frustrating power-sharing coalition with the Likud, the Labour Party won a clear popular mandate to implement its own foreign policy programme.

    Since the Labour Party did not win an absolute majority, it had to find coalition partners from among the smaller parties to give the government it formed a majority in the Knesset. Coalition building is never a simple matter in Israel where the proportional representation system encourages a multitude of parties. But the principle that guided Yitzhak Rabin, a principle first formulated by David Ben-Gurion, was to reserve foreign affairs and security for his own party and to offer coalition partners some of the less important ministries. Meretz, a left-of-centre party which won twelve seats and Shas, a moderate religious party composed mainly of Oriental Jews which won six seats, signed on as junior partners in the Labour-led coalition, giving the new government a narrow majority of 62 Members of the Knesset.

    Yitzhak Rabin doubled up as prime minister and minister of defence in the new government. He appointed his old rival, Shimon Peres, as foreign minister but he did so on the clear understanding that he himself would be in overall charge of the country's foreign policy. The division of labour between the two men was that the prime minister would direct all the bilateral peace talks while the foreign minister would direct the much less important multilateral talks. Thus, from the very start, Rabin enjoyed a position of towering dominance in the making of his government's foreign and defence policy.

    Despite this dominant position, from the very beginning there was a certain duality in the making of Israeli foreign policy under the new management. This duality stemmed from the different outlooks, preferences and time-frames of the prime minister and the foreign minister. A professional soldier turned politician, Rabin tends to approach diplomacy as the extension of war by other means. His aim is to divide and rule his Arab opponents in order to reassert the strategic dominance that Israel enjoyed in the Middle East prior to the 1991 Gulf War. Consequently, rather than strive towards a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rabin is a great believer in one peace at a time. The idea behind this approach is to break the united Arab front, to deal with each party separately and to pay the lowest possible price in terms of territory in return for each bilateral agreement. Rabin has no empathy whatsoever for the Arabs, no understanding of economics and no vision of a new Middle East.

    If Yitzhak Rabin is the politician concerned with short-term advantage, Shimon Peres is the statesman intent on changing the course of history. Peres has much more empathy for the Arabs, a better understanding of economics, a clearer appreciation of the declining utility of military force in the modern world, and a vision of a new Middle East. His vision, articulated in his 1993 book A New Middle East, is inspired by the example of the European Union. A prior condition for the realization of this vision is a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem. Security, to Peres's way of thinking, is measured not just in military terms, but also in psychological, political and economic terms. In his view it would be a mistake for Israel to try to perpetuate the territorial status quo and to continue to base her national security on massive and costly armed forces. The alternative he believes in is Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, a resolution of the conflict with the Arabs, and open borders which would enable Israel to extend its economic links throughout the region, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.

    The change of government in Israel did not produce a dramatic change in Israel's position in the bilateral peace talks which resumed in Washington. True to his election promises and tactical preference for one peace at a time, Rabin began by giving priority to the Palestinian track. But the stalemate in this track persisted because Rabin's offer of autonomy to the Palestinians did not go significantly beyond that of his predecessor. When it became clear that the Palestinian delegation was not prepared to accept his terms, Rabin switched his attention to Syria. His statement that in return for real peace Israel would be prepared to pay by territorial withdrawal on the Golan Heights broke the ice in the Israeli-Syrian track. The Syrians responded by saying that they were ready for total peace with Israel but only in return for total withdrawal. But when Rabin made it clear that total withdrawal is out of the question,the negotiators were back to square one. The year 1993 thus ended with very little sign of progress in any of the tracks of the bilateral talks.

    In January 1994, while the official negotiations continued to mark time, secret talks began in Oslo between two Israeli academics and representatives of the PLO. The academics were soon joined by two senior officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Shimon Peres and his deputy, Yossi Beilin, gave unstinting support and encouragement to the Israeli team. Peres informed Rabin about these talks but Rabin was rather sceptical at first. He did not give the final go-ahead until after it became evident that the marginalized and demoralized PLO leadership in Tunis would settle for considerably less than the official Palestinian delegation in Washington. The upshot was the agreement between Israel and the PLO, which took the entire world by surprise, on interim Palestinian self-government in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. Rabin gave his blessing to this agreement but all the heavy lifting on the Israeli side had been done by his foreign minister. Without Rabin's blessing, the Oslo accord would have remained a dead letter; without Peres's heavy lifting there would have probably been no accord at all.

    The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington on 13 September 1993 represents a major watershed in Israeli politics. In the first place, the DOP was preceded by mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO - an abrupt departure from the long-standing bipartisan stand of denouncing the PLO as a terrorist organization and refusing to talk to it. Second, the DOP was the first ever formal agreement between Israel and the Palestinians -a departure from the bipartisan preference for negotiating with the governments of the Arab states and bypassing the Palestinians. Third, in the DOP Israel recognised for the first time that the Palestinian people have national rights - a departure from the bipartisan insistence that the Palestinian problem is essentially a refugee problem.

    To be sure, the DOP fell a long way short of the Palestinian claim to full independence and statehood. As its title makes clear, the DOP only provided for interim Palestinian self-government arrangements in Gaza and Jericho. Moreover, the document signed in Washington was not a full-blown agreement but a declaration of principles accompanied by a detailed timetable for negotiations between Israel and the PLO. This timetable allowed two months for reaching an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and Jericho; four months for the completion of the Israeli withdrawal and the transfer of limited powers to a Palestinian authority; nine months for the holding of elections for a Palestinian Council; and a five-year transitional period leading to a permanent settlement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

    The shape of the final settlement is not spelled out in the DOP. All the options, including a perpetuation of the interim arrangements, an independent Palestinian state and a confederation between a Palestinian entity and Jordan, are left open. Similarly, all the most contentious and sensitive issues in Israeli-Palestinian relations are left in abeyance for the negotiations on the final status of the territories that are due to begin not later than the third year of the transitional period. These issues include the future of Jerusalem, the status of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the rights of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, and the borders of the Palestinian entity.

    The ambiguities and contradictions that pervade the DOP are best illustrated by the status of the Jewish settlements. Under the terms of the DOP the Israeli government is committed to the principle of Palestinian self-government not only in Gaza and Jericho but throughout the West Bank, but excluding Jerusalem. While negotiations over the borders between Israel and the self-governing Palestinian area are deferred to a later stage, the mention of borders is in itself significant. It implies a commitment by the Israeli government to a territorial settlement with the Palestinians. But at the same time, for security and domestic political reasons,the Israeli government insisted that at least for the transitional period of five years, the settlements must remain exactly where they are, under its own jurisdiction and under the protection of the Israeli army.

    The settlements have been repeatedly denounced by the international community as illegal and as an obstacle to peace. Inside Israel, however, the settlements remain a very delicate and difficult issue. In numerical terms, the settlers amount to roughly 10,000 on the Golan Heights, 5,000 in the Gaza Strip, and 120,000 on the West Bank, not counting the greater Jerusalem area. But although they form a tiny minority of the Israeli public, the settlers are a militant, vociferous and highly organised minority whose spearhead is Gush Emunim, the Bloc of the Faithful. Possibly as many as eighty or eighty-five per cent of the settlers were attracted to the occupied territories by material incentives like cheap housing and a better quality of life rather than by an ideological commitment to rebuild the Land of Israel. But that still leaves a hard core of ultra-nationalist settlers who are uncompromisingly opposed to any territorial compromise with the Arabs and who have at their disposal a highly effective settlement lobby. It is true that the political clout of the settlement lobby has diminished in the wake of Likud's  fall from power but it is still a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.

    The Labour government which came to power in the summer of 1992 is sometimes portrayed as the unfortunate heir to fifteen years of frenetic settlement activity by its Likud predecessors. But the reality is more complicated. Both Labour and Likud governments built settlements on the West Bank after it was captured from Jordan in 1967 but they did so for somewhat different reasons. While Labour's approach to settlements was governed primarily by security considerations, that of the Likud was governed primarily by ideological considerations. Labour, in line with the Allon Plan, favoured the building of settlements in areas considered crucial to Israel security (about 30 per cent of the West Bank) and the return of the heavily populated areas to Jordanian rule. Likud governments, on the other hand, were opposed to any territorial withdrawal on the West Bank, whether in favour of Jordan or in favour of the Palestinians. They therefore planted settlements across the length and breadth of the West Bank, including the heavily populated areas, in order to ensure permanent Israeli control and to foreclose the option of territorial withdrawal in the event of a Labour return to power. The Rabin government is thus impaled on the horns of a dilemma: it has embarked on the quest for a territorial settlement with the Palestinians but it is also committed, at least in the interim period, to maintain the Jewish settlements which its domestic political opponents had deliberately erected as a obstacle on the road to a settlement.

    The fact that the Gaza-Jericho deal did not involve the immediate dismantling of settlements made it easier to sell to the Israeli public. But support for the accord was far from unanimous. Likud leaders, and the leaders of the smaller parties further to the right such as Tsomet and Moledet, denounced the deal as a sell-out of Israel's patrimony, as a betrayal of the settlers, as the beginning of the end of the Land of Israel and as the thin end of the wedge of an independent Palestinian state. These leaders greatly exaggerated the significance of the concessions that the Israeli government had made to secure this deal while ignoring the concessions that the Palestinians had to make.

    These sweeping denunciations and prophecies of gloom and doom did not cut much ice with the Israeli public. The great majority of Israelis responded to the deal which their government had struck through the Oslo channel in a much more balanced and mature fashion than the politicians of the right. A Gallup poll conducted for CNN television showed that 65 per cent of those polled approved of the accord with only 13 per cent describing themselves as `very much against'. More than 50 per cent of those polled believed a Palestinian state would come into existence alongside Israel within twenty years. These figures suggest that the majority of Israelis were less troubled by the prospect of Palestinian statehood than the politicians of the right.

    On 23 September 1993, at the end of a debate which lasted three days, the Knesset endorsed the government's peace strategy, voting by 61 to 50 in favour of the accord with the PLO. Right-wing MKs hurled insults at the prime minister and his colleagues while several thousand protesters, many of them settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, staged demonstrations outside the Knesset building. During the debate the opposition appeared to be much more divided than the government. Benyamin Netanyahu, who had succeeded Yitzhak Shamir as the leader of the Likud in the aftermath of its electoral defeat, was unable to enforce party discipline. Nor did he have any coherent alternative to offer to the government's cautious peace strategy. The margin of victory exceeded Rabin's expectations and provided him with a significant boost in the face of opposition demands for a national referendum or new elections. He was particularly pleased that a majority of the Jewish MKs from all parties voted for his peace initiative so he did not have to rely on the support of the Arab MKs which was naturally forthcoming.

    Having secured parliamentary ratification for the accord it struck with the PLO, the government moved to the next stage of implementing the accord. At this stage, however, the lack of consensus within the government became increasingly apparent. Government leaders were divided into two groups. One group wanted to spin out the negotiations with the PLO with a view to maintaining Israeli control over as much of the West Bank as possible for as long as possible and blocking any real progress towards Palestinian statehood. The other group accepted that the accord meant Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and, in the longer run, an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The first group wanted to use the transitional period of five years to perpetuate as far as possible the political and territorial status quo; the second group wanted to use the transitional period to develop a different type of relationship with the Palestinians. It is widely suspected that Yitzhak Rabin belongs to the first group although he himself denies it. On the other hand, no one doubts that Shimon Peres and his deputy belong to the second group and they themselves make little effort to conceal it.

    Two committees were set up in early October 1993 to negotiate the implementation of the lofty-sounding declaration signed in Washington. The first committee was chaired by Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader who signed the declaration on behalf of the PLO. This ministerial-level committee was supposed to meet in Cairo every two or three weeks. The other committee, the nuts and bolts committee, consisted of experts who were supposed to meet for two or three days each week in the Egyptian resort of Taba on the Red Sea. The heads of the delegations to these talks were Nabil Shaath and Major-General Amnon Shahak, the number two man in IDF and head of its military intelligence. The two sides managed to hammer out an agenda and formed two groups of experts, one to deal with military affairs, the other with the transfer of authority.

    Fluctuations in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were directly linked to the unresolved rivalry between Rabin and Peres and to the involvement of senior IDF officers in this rivalry. These officers had been kept completely in the dark about the secret talks in the Norwegian capital and they felt bitter at not having been consulted about the security implications of the accord. Chief of Staff Ehud Barak believed that in their haste to secure their place in history,the politicians had conceded too much to the PLO and that when the time came to implement the agreement it was the responsibility of the army to tackle the security problems. Rabin's decision to put army generals in charge of the detailed negotiations with the PLO was due partly to his desire to mollify the generals for their earlier exclusion and partly to his desire to limit Peres's latitude for making further concessions. But, as some of Rabin's own party colleagues pointed out at the time, his heavy reliance on the generals created an unhealthy precedent for the intervention of the military in matters of high policy.

    Underlying the labyrinthine negotiations at Taba, there was a basic conceptual divide. The Israeli representatives wanted a gradual and strictly limited transfer of powers while maintaining overall responsibility for security in the occupied territories in their own hands. They wanted to repackage rather than end Israel's military occupation. The Palestinians wanted an early and extensive transfer of power to enable them to start laying the foundations for an independent state. They were anxious to get rid of the Israeli occupation and they struggled to gain every possible symbol of sovereignty.

    As a result of this basic conceptual divide the Taba negotiations plunged repeatedly into crisis and took considerably longer to complete than the two months allowed for in the original timetable. Another complicating factor was the tension between the army officers and the foreign minister. The generals directed some of their fire at Shimon Peres for his apparent willingness to concede ground on vital security issues, such as full Israeli control of border crossings and access roads to settlements in the occupied territories. Ever the grand visionary, Peres mocked the generals for their obsession with minute details. When the negotiations got stuck, it was usually Peres, the consummate diplomat, who worked out the saving formula directly with Yasir Arafat.

    After four months of wrangling, an agreement was reached in the form of two documents,one on general principles, the other on border crossings. The two documents were initialled by Shimon peres and Yasir Arafat in Cairo on 9 February 1994. Although the Cairo agreement was tactfully presented as a compromise solution, it was a compromise that tilted very heavily towards the Israeli position. IDF had managed to impose its own conception of the interim period: specific steps to transfer limited powers to the Palestinians without giving up Israel's overall responsibility for security. IDF undertook to redeploy rather than withdraw its forces in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. The Cairo agreement gave IDF `full authority' over Gaza's three settlement blocs, the four lateral roads joining them to the Green Line and `the relevant territory overlooking them'. The outstanding feature of the agreement was thus to allow IDF to maintain a military presence in and around the area earmarked for Palestinian self-government and to retain full responsibility for external security and control of the land crossings to Egypt and Jordan. Despite these serious limitations, the Cairo agreement did form a first step in regulating the withdrawal of the Israeli Civil Administration and secret services from Gaza to Jericho.

    This process of withdrawal was rudely shaken on 25 February 1994 when Dr Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler and member of the racist party Kach, opened fire with an IDF-issued Galil assault rifle on Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 before being bludgeoned to death by the survivors. A preliminary report by a commission of inquiry appointed by the government revealed monumental incompetence and systematic failure to enforce the law against armed Jewish settlers on the part of the Israeli security forces. But the Hebron massacre also revealed that the Israeli concept of security in the occupied territories was basically flawed because it catered only for Jews while ignoring the needs of the Palestinian inhabitants. Israeli settlers had the army, the police and the border police to protect them as well as being heavily armed themselves. The Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories, on the other hand, were left to the tender mercies of the settlers and the Israeli security services.

    The PLO angrily suspended its participation in the peace talks in response to the massacre, demanding the removal of the 400 or so militant settlers from Hebron and the disarming of the rest. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement which was bitterly opposed to the peace talks with the Jewish state from the start, vowed to exact revenge. Sympathy for the settlers sharply declined inside Israel after the massacre both because of their attempts to derail the peace process and because they threatened to embroil their own countrymen in a vicious circle of violence and bloodshed.

    The Israeli government did not go as far as it could have done in cracking down on the militant settlers. What it did do was outlaw Kach and detain without trial some of its leaders. It also acceded to the PLO's demand for a temporary international presence in Hebron to assist in promoting stability and restoring normal life in the city. Calls from the PLO and other quarters to put the whole question of settlements on the table were rejected by the government on the grounds that it was not obliged to do so by the original accord until the beginning of the third year of the transitional period. The government did promise however, in a joint communiquי it issued with the PLO in Cairo on 31 March, to accelerate its withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho and to be guided by the target dates set in the DOP.

    These concessions were just enough to induce the PLO to resume its participation in the peace talks and another round of negotiations resulted in an agreement which was signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat in Cairo on 4 May. The Cairo agreement wrapped up the Gaza-Jericho negotiations and set the terms for expanding Palestinian self-government to the rest of the West Bank. Expansion was to take place in three stages. First, responsibility for tourism, education and culture, health,social welfare and direct taxation was to be transferred from Israel's Civil Administration to the Palestinian National Authority. Second, Israel was to redeploy its armed forces away from `Palestinian population centres'. Third, elections were due to take place throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a new authority.

    The Cairo document was billed by both sides as an agreement to divorce after 27 years of unhappy co-existence in which the stronger partner forced the weaker to live under its yoke. This was true in the sense that Israel secured a separate legal system, water, electricity and roads for the Jewish settlements. It was not true in the sense that the document gave the stronger party firm control over the new relationship.

    The Cairo document stresses repeatedly the need for co-operation, co-ordination and harmonization in the new relationship. A large number of liaison committees, most of which were to be divided equally between the two sides, gave a superficial appearance of parity. But a closer scrutiny of the agreement reveals that this parity is undermined in favour of the stronger partner by the fact that Israeli occupation laws and military orders were to remain in force unless amended or abrogated by mutual agreement. What this meant in practice was that any issue that could not be resolved by negotiation would be subject to the provisions of Israeli law rather than that of international law. This was a retreat from the Palestinian demand that international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention, should be the source of legislation and jurisdiction during the transitional period.

    A week after the Cairo document was signed, a token force of 30 Palestinian policemen entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt to take over control for internal security from the retreating Israelis. This was the first tangible evidence that Israeli occupation was winding down. Until this point all the movement had been unilateral as the Israeli army redeployed its forces so as to provide continuing protection to the tiny community of Jewish settlers in the strip. Now a new Palestinian police force was to take charge of the nearby Palestinian population centres in accordance with a pre-arranged division of labour. The Israeli withdrawal was greeted with a sigh of relief at home and great joy and jubilation among the Gazans. As the last Israeli soldiers pulled out of their military camps in Rafah and Nusairat to a final barrage of stones, the Israeli flag was replaced by the flag of Palestine. A 27-year old experiment in imposing Israeli rule over a million and a half recalcitrant Arabs, an experiment doomed to failure from the start, was visibly and symbolically nearing the end of its life.

    The government's policy of controlled withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho enjoyed broad popular support. Hard as they tried,the leaders of the opposition failed to arouse the nation against the decisions of the government. As far as the government is concerned, the real paradox is that it needs a strong PLO to implement the Gaza-Jericho settlement, but a strong PLO only reinforces the determination of the Palestinians to fight for a state of their own. The Israeli prime minister has not mastered the art of gracious giving; the PLO chairman can be every bit as ungracious, and undignified, in fighting over every issue, however small, to extract the last possible concession.

    Yasir Arafat's long-awaited arrival in Gaza on 1 July showed how much horror and revulsion he continues to evoke among Israelis even after his historic handshake with their prime minister. Arafat's visit thus marked a moment of truth in Israel's domestic politics. Likud leaders saw the visit as an occasion for a mighty show of strength, joining hands with the leaders of the far-right Tsomet and Moledet parties. Their anti-Arafat rhetoric reached hysterical levels. But a rally organized by `the national camp' in Jerusalem's Zion Square turned into a rampage by some 10,000 right-wing rowdies against Arab bystanders and property in the Old City. The ensuring orgy of violence did nothing to endear the hard-liners to the Israeli public. Far from arousing the nation against the policy of the government, the rally back-fired against its own organisers, providing ministers with a welcome opportunity to denounce right-wing extremism.

    The Labour government further enhanced its standing at home by concluding an agreement with Jordan. Israel and Jordan had always been the best of enemies, and many secret high-level meetings had taken place over the years across the battle lines. Palestinian nationalism posed a threat to both Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and they therefore perceived a common interest in containing it. After 1967 the Labour Party remained committed to the survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Amman and emerged as the main proponent of the so-called Jordanian option. The Israel-PLO accord took King Hussein by complete surprise and seemed to signal the end of the special relationship between his country and Israel. But at a secret meeting with the King two weeks after the accord was signed, Mr Rabin assured him that Israel remained committed to the survival of his regime and that Jordan's interests would be taken into account in all subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

    A dramatic breakthrough occurred on 25 July 1994 when Yitzhak Rabin met King Hussein in the White House in Washington and, in the presence of a beaming President Clinton, signed a declaration which formally ended the 46-year state of war between Israel and Jordan. Rabin claimed for himself all the credit for the Washington Declaration which he described as `the closest thing to a peace treaty'. With characteristic lack of grace, he told Israeli journalists that his foreign minister had nothing to do with the sudden about-turn in the relations with Jordan.

    Yet in truth Shimon Peres had been the real architect of the Washington Declaration, just as he had been the real architect of the Oslo accord and of the Cairo agreement. Peres is renowned for his pro-Hussein views and in the Labour Party he is often nicknamed `the last Hashemite'. Peres's most famous encounter with King Hussein took place in London in 1987. The London Agreement provided for bilateral negotiations under international auspices but the then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir scuppered it by insisting, as was his wont, on unconditional surrender by the enemy. After the Labour victory in 1992, when Rabin refused to talk to the PLO and pinned his hopes on Syria, it was Peres who argued that without a settlement with the Palestinians the King was unlikely to come out of the closet and that the key to a settlement with both was economic co-operation. On 2 November 1993, Peres paid a secret visit to His Royal Highness to whom he once referred as His Royal Shyness, in Amman and the two of them worked out a joint strategy for peace in stages which included persuading the Clinton administration to write off Jordan's debt to America. It was this strategy which paved the way to the trilateral summit in Washington.

    The accord with Jordan was overwhelmingly popular right across the Israeli political spectrum. An opinion poll which coincided with the Washington summit found that 61 per cent of Israelis believe in `the vision of the new Middle East'. So enthusiastic and unanimous was the popular response that even the Likud was forced to change its tune. In the past Likud leaders, led by Ariel Sharon, touted the slogan `Jordan is Palestine' which implied the destruction of the Hashemite regime on the East Bank and its replacement by a Palestinian state. This had been the Israeli right's favourite solution to the Palestinian problem. Whether he liked it or not, Benyamin Netanyahu was forced to recognize that this solution had been overtaken by events, and he even praised the accord with Jordan. Netanyahu also told Crown Prince Hassan that Sharon's view that Jordan is Palestine is not shared by him personally or by his party.

    The accord with Jordan not only heightened public approval of Rabin's policy but also enhanced his bargaining position vis-ב-vis the PLO. It was immediately apparent that Rabin intended to play the Jordanian card against Arafat, to make him even more submissive and compliant. King Hussein was the joker in the pack to be kept in reserve for trumping any aces that Arafat might produce.

    The Washington Declaration provided a foretaste of the way in which the Jordanian card could be played against the Palestinians. This took the form of a reference to Jordan's `special role' in caring for the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of the independent state towards which they are striving. Under the terms of the 13 September accord, the future of Jerusalem is due to come up for negotiations between the two sides in the third year of the transitional period. The reference to Jordan's special role was therefore bound to be seen as a deliberate ploy by Israel to undercut the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. It also introduced a third party to what was supposed to be a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian affair.

    The accord with Jordan could also be seen as reflecting the measure of Rabin's success in moving away from the Madrid formula for the conduct of Arab-Israeli peace talks. During the bilateral talks that followed the Madrid conference, the Arab and Palestinian delegations tried to maintain a united or at least a co-ordinated front. This front was broken by the PLO by its solo diplomacy and separate agreement with Israel. This in turn had the effect of reducing the inhibitions that other Arab states felt about doing business with the Jewish state. King Hussein was emboldened to take the plunge and sign another accord which fell just short of a peace treaty with Israel.

    On 26 October 1994 King Hussein and Mr Rabin went a step further and signed a formal peace treaty. In Jordan this treaty was regarded as `the king's peace' but in Israel it enjoyed wide popular support and elevated Rabin's prestige to a new height. But the conclusion of the peace treaty with Jordan was followed by a slow-down on the Palestinian track. There was a distinct hardening of the Israeli position in the negotiations with the PLO. Labour Party Secretary General Nissim Zvili openly called for suspending all negotiations for a full two years, until after the next general elections.

    Rabin himself appeared to have lost faith in the Oslo accord. He refrained from any move that involved a security risk even if it meant reneging on the Oslo or Cairo agreements. He also came under pressure from the military and from the settlers to go back on some of Israel's commitments under these agreements. The military told Rabin that if they are ordered to withdraw their troops from the centers of Palestinian population on the West Bank, they would not be able to guarantee the security of the Jewish settlers. Israel's consequent refusal to withdraw its troops meant that Palestinian elections could not take place. This was a violation of the letter of the Oslo accord.

    Another example of Rabin's about-turn was the way he handled the explosive issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. In December 1994 settlers from Efrat, south of Bethlehem, started work on a new housing project on land claimed by the Arab village of Al-Khader. This action provoked a series of showdowns and clashes between Jews and Palestinians. The myth of a freeze on settlements on the West Bank was exposed when the government argued that the freeze on public sector development never applied to private buildings, nor to projects deemed necessary for security reasons. By conniving in the expansion of existing settlements and approving confiscation of more Arab land, Rabin and his colleagues violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Oslo accord.

    The most important factor, however, in derailing the talks on Palestinian self-rule were the suicide bombings inside Israel carried out by members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the six months between October 1994 and March 1995 these bombings killed nearly 60 Israelis. Terror thus became not just a painful nuisance but a strategic threat of the first order to the peace process. Israeli leaders accuse Yasir Arafat of not doing enough to prevent terrorist attacks from the areas under his control. Arafat retorts that these attacks are the inevitable result of Israel's continued occupation and refusal to hand over to him full authority. Whatever the causes, the consequences of these attacks have been two-fold: a serious erosion of Israeli public support for the peace process with the PLO and an equally serious drop in the level of public support for the Rabin government.

    The record of the Rabin government in the first three years of its life thus provides another striking illustration of the complexity of the relationship between domestic politics and Israel's foreign policy. Rabin's commitment to furthering the peace process in the Middle East helped him to win the elections of June 1992. His success in reaching an accord on Palestinian self-rule with the PLO and a peace treaty with Jordan greatly enhanced his domestic standing. But the wave of suicide bombings inside Israel raised doubts in the minds of many Israelis about the competence of their prime minister and about the wisdom of proceeding further down the track leading to Palestinian self-rule. Shimon Peres argues that it is more important for their party to win historically than to win politically, more important, that is, to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East than to win the next Israeli elections. Yitzhak Rabin probably cares much more about winning politically than winning historically. The danger inherent in Rabin's approach to Middle East peace-making is that he and his party would lose both politically and historically.