Prelude to the Accord: Likud, Labour and the Palestinians

Avi Shlaim

Journal of Palestine Studies, 23: 2, Winter 1994, 5-19.

The mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and the Declaration of Principles on Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho, signed in Washington on 13 September 1993, mark a historic breakthrough in the century-old conflict over Palestine.  The conflict was born at the end of the last century as a result of the incompatible national aspirations of the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.  It was a conflict between two nations for one country.  The neighbouring Arab states became involved in this conflict in the 1930s and, with the exception of Egypt, they are still involved today.  But the clash between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism has always been the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It is for this reason that relations with the Palestinians is such a sensitive, complex and controversial issue in Israeli politics.  The aim of this article is to compare and contrast the policies of the Likud bloc and of the Labour Party towards the peace talks with the Palestinians which got under way at the Madrid conference of October 1991.

In March 1990 the national unity government headed by Mr Yitzhak Shamir collapsed over the issue of a dialogue with the Palestinians.  Following the departure of the Labour Party, Mr Shamir formed a narrower government with the religious parties and three small ultranationalist parties.  This was the most rightwing government in Israel’s entire history.  Following Likud’s crushing defeat at the polls on 23 June 1992, the Labour Party under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin formed another narrow government.  This one is probably the most dovish government in the country’s history.  Most Arabs believe that there is no significant difference between the two parties.  It might be instructive therefore to examine the record of the Likud-led and the Labour-led governments in the peace talks with the Palestinians in order to determine whether this is indeed the case.
When the Labour Party emerged as the victor in the  Israeli general election in June 1992, a BBC correspondent asked an Arab janitor in Jerusalem for his reaction.  `Do you see my left shoe,’ replied the Arab indifferently, `that is Yitzhak Rabin.  Do you see my right shoe, that is Yitzhak Shamir.  Two Yitzhaks, two shoes, so what’s the difference?’  This feeling that there is not much to choose between the leaders of Israel’s two main parties is not confined to Arabs.  When Rabin served as defence minister in the national unity government headed by Shamir from 1986 to 1990, there was a joke in Israel which went as follows: what is the difference between a leftwing Likudnik and a rightwing Likudnik?  Answer: a leftwing Likudnik is a follower of Yitzhak Shamir and a rightwing Likudnik is a follower of Yitzhak Rabin.

The traditional foreign policies of the rival parties led by the two Yitzhaks also display some striking similarities.  The critic William Hazlitt compared the Whig and the Tory parties in the early nineteenth century to two rival coach companies that splash mud on one another but go by the same route to the same destination.  It is tempting to apply the same analogy to the Labour and the Likud parties which have dominated the Israeli political scene since 1948.  But to do so would be to take a simplistic view of Israeli politics. 

No one would deny that Likud and Labour splash mud on one another.  It is true that both parties used to share a blind spot regarding the Palestinians, preferring to treat the Arab-Israeli conflict as an inter-state conflict.  It is true that both parties are deeply opposed to Palestinian nationalism and deny that the Palestinians have a right to national self determination.  The notorious statement that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people came not from the Likud but from that old Labour party battle-axe, Golda Meir.  It is also true that, until very recently, both parties refused to negotiate with the PLO and that they remain unconditionally opposed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. 

Yet the differences between the Likud and Labour are quite significant, both in the realm of ideology and in the realm of practical policy.  The final destination of the two parties was different and they sought to get to their respective destinations by different routes.  This is why the rise to power of the Likud in 1977 constituted such a sharp break in Israeli foreign policy as well as ending three decades of uninterrupted Labour rule at home. And this is why the Labour victory of June 1992 which ended a decade and a half of Likud hegemony constitutes another watershed in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. 

The Labour party traditionally had a pro-Hashemite orientation.  In 1947 its leaders reached an agreement with King Abdullah of Jordan, the grandfather of the present King Hussein, to partition Palestine at the expense of the Palestinians.  The Palestinian state envisaged in the UN partition plan of 29 November 1947 never saw the light of day.  What was left of Arab Palestine was annexed by Jordan.  After 1948, the Labour party leaders remained actively committed to the survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Amman and to the suppression of Palestinian nationalism.  After the June War of 1967, the Labour party adopted the so called `Jordanian option’.  This posited that there is no room for a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river.  The aim of the policy was to reach a settlement with King Hussein of Jordan based on territorial compromise, on the return of most but not all of the West Bank to Jordanian rule. 

The Likud’s ideology can also be summed in two words - Greater Israel.  According to this ideology, Judea and Sameria, the biblical terms for the West Bank, are an integral part of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.  The Likud categorically denies that Jordan has any claim to sovereignty over this area.  Equally vehement is the Likud’s denial that the Palestinians have a right to self determination in this area. 

All that the Likud would offer the Palestinians is limited autonomy in running their daily lives.  The first Palestinian autonomy plan was put forward by Menachen Begin in December 1977 when negotiating the Camp David accords with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.  It is essential to understand that, then as now, autonomy, as conceived by the Likud, applies only to the people of the occupied territories and not to the land.  Israel retains its claim to sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza under this plan.  Yigal Allon, the late Labour party leader, remarked about this plan that it is only in Mark Chagall’s pictures that people float in mid-air free of the force of gravity and that it is impossible to translate this artistic quirk into any meaningful political reality.  It was impossible then and it remained impossible under Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, who was actually opposed to the Camp David accords. 

One way of summing up the Likud’s policy towards the Palestinians is in terms of the three noes: no to negotiations with the PLO, no to a Palestinian state, and no to swapping land for peace.  And one way of summing up the differences between the Likud and Labour is by focussing on their attitude towards the principle of partition.  The Likud rejects partition as a basis for a settlement with either the Palestinians or Jordan, laying a claim to the whole territory west of the Jordan river.  The Labour party, on the other hand, accepts the principle of partition, the notion of trading land for peace, as a basis for a settlement but has traditionally prefered Jordan to the Palestinians as a partner.

Yitzhak Shamir himself remains something of an enigma despite his prominence in public life during the  decade that preceded his crushing electoral defeat.  Losing his family in the Nazi holocaust was a formative experience which could only reinforce his stark, Hobbsian view of the world.  Although he rarely mentions the holocaust in his public utterances, the experience seared itself on his psyche and continues to colour his attitude to his people’s other great adversary - the Arabs.  In Shamir’s monochromatic picture of the world, `the Arabs’ feature as a monolithic and implacable enemy bent on the destruction of the state of Israel and on throwing the Jews into the sea.  Any signs of a change of heart on the Arab side are habitually dismissed by Shamir as the product of purely tactical considerations.  `The Arabs are still the same Arabs’, Shamir is fond of saying, `and the sea is still the same sea’.  A general disbelief in the possibility of peace and refusal to pay any concrete price for it is part and parcel of this deeply entrenched view of a hostile world, bad Arabs and permanent danger.

On Shamir’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians two rather different interpretations used to be advanced.  One interpretation, popular among American Jews, was that Shamir is a tough bargainer, but when the terms are right he would strike a deal and use his impeccable nationalist credentials to push it through, as Begin had done with Egypt.  The other view was that on the Palestinian issue Shamir was a hopeless case because his ideological commitment to the Land of Israel ruled out any territorial compromise.  As Avishai Margalit put it Shamir 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.  He will not bargain about the Land of Israel or about any interim agreement that would involve the least risk of losing control over the occupied territories.[1]

While the Bush administration worked to convene the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Shamir continued the policy of building more Jewish settlements on the West Bank.  Shamir insisted, as a condition for attending the Madrid conference, that the Palestinians could not be represented by Yasser Arafat or any other PLO leader based in Tunis or by residents of East Jerusalem but by local leaders from the West Bank and Gaza who would form part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.  It was one of those rare international disputes in which one party chose not only its own team for the match but also that of the other party. 

Although he succeeded in imposing his own rules for Palestinian representation, Shamir went to Madrid in a defiant and truculent mood.  The letters of invitation stated that the negotiations would proceed on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 242 of 22 November 1967.  This resolution incorporated the principle of trading land for peace but Shamir would not explicitly accept either the resolution or the principle as a basis for negotiation. 

As the head of the Israeli delegation, Shamir used the platform to deliver the first ever Israel Bonds speech in front on an Arab audience.  He portrayed Israel as the innocent victim of Arab aggression and categorically denied that any change had taken place in the Arab attitude to Israel.  The presence in front of him of high-ranking representatives of the Palestinians and of all the neighbouring Arab states, including Egypt which had signed a peace treaty with Israel back in 1979, was evidently devoid of any significance in his eyes.  The gist of his message was that the Arabs are still the same Arabs and the sea is still the same sea.  The root cause of the conflict, he insisted, was not territory but the Arab refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.  Hence he was not prepared to trade territory for peace;  all he would offer was peace for peace.

Some observers chose to interpret Shamir’s speech as the opening gambit in a protracted bargaining process.  Concessions, they said, would come only once the substantive negotiations got under way.  Subsequent events, however, were to prove that Shamir’s opening speech in Madrid represented his basic, inflexible and unchangeable position.  For him Palestinian autonomy in what was to be a transitional period of five years was intended to foreclose all other options rather than to pave the way to any further Israeli concessions.

Five rounds of bilateral talks were held in Washington following the mother of all Middle East peace conferences in Madrid.  Throughout these five rounds, the Likud government continued to rule out the swapping of land for peace.  A good deal of time was taken up with procedural wrangles and it as not until Israel agreed to negotiate separately with the Palestinian and Jordanian delegations that the substantive issues could be addressed.  Even then the negotiations proceeded at a snail’s pace and they ended in deadlock. 

The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians only highlighted the immense gap between them.  The Palestinians started with the assumption that they are a people with national rights and that the interim arrangements under discussion were the precursor to independence and should be shaped accordingly.  The Israeli government started with the assumption that the Palestinians are the inhabitants of the territories with no national rights of any kind and certainly no right to independence, not even after the end of the transitional period.

At the fourth round of talks, towards the end of February 1992, the two sides tabled incompatible plans for the interim period of self-government.  The Palestinian blueprint was for a Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority or PISGA for short.  Israel’s counter proposal was for `interim self-government arrangements.’  Behind the two names lurked irreconcilable positions on the nature, scope, and purpose of `interim self-government’.

Israel’s proposal for interim self-government was  anchored in the 1978 Camp David accords and it applied only to people, not to territory.  In some respects the proposal offered the Palestinians less than Begin’s autonomy plan which they had rejected scornfully at the time as power to `collect garbage and exterminate mosquitoes.’

While Shamir’s proposal failed to meet the minimal expectations of the Palestinians, it provoked his ultra-nationalist partners to quit the coalition.   With the departure of Tsomet and Tehia, the countdown to the next election began.  During the campaign Shamir declared that the settlement drive in Judea and Samaria would continue and that he himself would not be a party to any deal that placed this drive at risk.  Consequently, the June 1992 election became almost a referendum on the peace issue.  Israelis were asked to choose between the territorial expansionism of the Likud and the policy of peace based on territorial compromise offered by Labour.

To this difficult question, the Israeli electorate gave an uncharacteristically clear-cut reply.  It returned Labour to power with a clear mandate to put its programme into action and it relegated the Likud to the opposition.  Labour increased its seats in the Knesset from 39 to 44, while Likud fell from 40 to 32.  One has to go back to the 1977 election for a comparable landslide victory.

In defeat Shamir remained as unapologetic and unrepentant about his ideological commitment to the Land of Israel as he had been in power.  Many observers considered this commitment to be incompatible with his other declared aim of attaining peace with the Palestinians and they concluded that the prime minister could not be negotiating in good faith.  The American sponsored peace process, according to this view, served simply as a smokescreen for consolidating Israel’s grip on the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Shamir himself confirmed these suspicions in an interview of blinding candour that he gave to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv only three days after his electoral defeat.  It was the true confession of a stone-faced stone-waller.

In this interview Shamir stressed that in his view the Likud must be guided by ideology because no political movement can survive unless it is driven by an ideology.  The centre-piece of his party’s ideology, he said, is the Land of Israel and on this there could be no compromise.  `Moderation,’ he explained, `should relate to the tactics but not to the goal.  That is how I acted as prime minister.  In my political activity I know how to display the tactics of moderation, but without conceding anything on the goal - the integrity of the Land of Israel.’

Shamir disclosed that his secret agenda for the peace talks had been to expand Jewish settlement and to complete the demographic revolution in the Land of Israel.  Without this demographic revolution, there was the danger that autonomy will be turned into a Palestinian state. `I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years,’ he said, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.’  When reminded that, judging by the results of the recent election, there is no majority for a Greater Land of Israel, Shamir retorted bluntly: `I didn’t believe there was a majority in favour of a Greater Land of Israel.  But it can be attained over time.  This must be the historic direction.  If we drop this basis, there would be nothing to prevent the development of a Palestinian state.’[2] 

Shamir’s interview was widely reported in the international media and caused outrage among Americans, Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis alike.  The comments angered some of Shamir’s ministerial colleagues who felt they had been tainted by his confession.  Some of the peace negotiators also felt deceived by Shamir and said they would not have participated in the talks if they had known that he was not serious. 

Under pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which had been inundated with protests, Shamir’s office expressed surprise at the interpretation of his remarks and denied any lack of commitment to the idea of Palestinian autonomy on his part.  Shamir’s remarks, it was claimed, referred only to the negotiations on the final settlement and not to the negotiations on autonomy during the transitional period.  But this lame explanation could not erase the impression that Shamir’s real aim had been to obstruct and delay the peace process rather than to advance it.  Arabs and Palestinians now had it on the highest authority that, from the very start, their partner had secretly hoped to ensure that the peace talks would fail.  This was the grim legacy left by Shamir to his Labour successors.

To dissociate himself from this legacy, Yitzhak Rabin emphasised the differences and downplayed the similarities between himself and his predecessor.  He presented the election results as marking a break rather than continuity in the country’s approach to the peace talks.  `We inherited the framework of the Madrid conference from the previous government,’ he told the Knesset on 13 July 1992.  `But there is one significant change: the previous government created the tools, but they never intended to use them in order to achieve peace.’

The composition of the new government also underscored the sharp break with the legacy of the Likud.    Of Labour’s eleven ministers, at least six may be counted as doves, foreign minister Shimon Peres being the most prominent.  Labour’s chief coalition partner is Meretz, a left-of-centre party created through a merger of the Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam and Shinui, which won 12 seats in the Knesset.  The other coalition partner is Shas, a centrist religious party of mainly Oriental Jews which increased its representation from five to six seats in the Knesset.  Although Rabin’s government commands only a narrow majority of 62 in the 120-member Knesset,  it can also count on the support of the five Arab and communist MKs for a moderate foreign policy.  Rabin thus enjoys considerable latitude in the making of foreign policy. 

But Rabin is also the product of the last half-century of his people’s history.  He is the first Israeli-born prime minister and, to a far greater extent than any of his predecessors, he was personally involved at the sharp end of the conflict with the Arabs.  This direct involvement in the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, first as a soldier and then as a diplomat and as a politician, played a decisive part in shaping Rabin’s world-view. 

Suspicion of the Arabs and a deep sense of personal responsibility for Israel’s security are the twin hallmarks of this world-view.  For Rabin the Arabs represent first and foremost a military threat and, consequently, he tends to view all developments in the region from the narrow perspective of Israel’s security needs.  A lifetime spent as a soldier inclines him to proceed with caution, on the basis of `worst case analysis’, and makes him reluctant to assume any political risks.  Rabin is not endowed with imagination or vision and he certainly has no empathy for the other side in the conflict.  Like a staff officer, he  concentrates on the practical side, examines alternative courses of action and carefully weighs the costs and benefits of each.  This pragmatism is his greatest strength and greatest limitation as a statesman.

Within the Labour Party Rabin has always belonged to the hawkish wing.  But his pragmatism is such that he is capable of changing his mind even on basic tenets of party dogma.  Nothing illustrates this better than his attitude towards the Palestinian issue.  To begin with, Rabin was a firm believer in the Jordanian option.  He was no less devoted to reaching an agreement with Jordan than Shimon Peres.  He was even more outspoken than Peres in his opposition to the idea of an independent Palestinian state. 

On security issues Rabin was even more hard-line than the Likud ministers.  When the Palestinian uprising broke out in December 1987, Rabin was defence minster in the national unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir.  Rabin was critical of Shamir for not using force on a massive enough scale to crush the intifada.  The outbreak of intifada took Rabin himself by complete surprise and he reacted angrily by ordering his soldiers to break the bones of the Palestinians.  This is what they did, literally, but to no avail.  The army commanders explained to him that this was a political problem and that there is no simple military solution to it.  It was then that Rabin coined the phrase `marching with two feet,’ the military foot and the political foot.[3]
This implied stepping up the use of force in order to arrive at the negotiations from a position of strength.  But it also implied that Israel would have to negotiate directly with the Palestinians and this amounted to a departure from his party’s hitherto exclusive orientation on Amman.  Rabin likes to think of himself as a great strategist, like Henry Kissinger, combining the use of force and diplomacy to achieve political ends.  But his political thinking is rather crude, his diplomatic style is unsubtle and his use of force extremely heavy-handed. 

Yitzhak Rabin’s victory thus inspired not only hope but doubts too about the prospects of the peace talks.  On the one hand, he was ready to move the peace talks forward and to accelerate the negotiations on Palestinian autonomy.  On the other hand, given his world-view and record, he was likely to act with great caution in order to safeguard what he considers to be Israel’s overriding security interests.  In a sense, he replaced the ideology of Greater Israel with another secular ideology  based not on territory but on national security.

Rabin presented his programme and his government in a major speech before the Knesset on 13 July.  He grouped the differences between the outgoing government and the incoming government under three headings: national priorities, the peace process, and Israel’s place in the world.  Whereas the outgoing government had lavished money on the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Rabin promised to divert resources to the absorption of immigrants, social and economic reforms, to the war against unemployment and to better education.  As far as the peace process was concerned, Rabin proposed to move from `process’ to peace making and to give priority to the talks on Palestinian autonomy, implying that Syria would have to await its turn.  Peace, however, could not come at the expense of Israel’s security. `When it comes to Israel’s security,’ he said, `we will concede not a thing.  From our standpoint, security takes precedence over peace.’

But the most striking and unexpected part of Rabin’s speech concerned Israel’s place in the world.  Jewish history had traditionally been presented as an endless chain of trials and tribulations which reached its climax in the Nazi holocaust.  Likud leaders had assiduously cultivated the image of a small and vulnerable Jewish state surrounded by a sea of Arab hostility.  Their answer to this sense of permanent threat was to build up Greater Israel as a citadel for the entire Jewish people.  Rabin not only discarded this policy but directly challenged the thinking behind it.  `No longer are we necessarily “a people that dwells alone,”’ he declared in his historic address to the Knesset, `and no longer is it true that “the whole world is against us.”  We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century.’[4]  These words constituted a sharp departure from what the American-Jewish historian Saul Baron once called the lachrymose view of Jewish history.  

The effects of the new attitude in Jerusalem were felt immediately when the sixth round of Middle East talks got under way in Washington on 24 August 1992.  From the Israeli side came the suggestion of continuous talks and this round was longer than any of the five previous ones; it lasted a whole month with a recess of 10 days in the middle.  Before embarking on the talks, Israel volunteered a number of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) like freeing Palestinian detainees and rescinding deportation orders.  The talks opened in a positive atmosphere, with all sides reporting a new tone and a more conciliatory attitude. 

With so much at stake, Rabin took personal charge of the bilateral talks, leaving his foreign minister in charge of much less critical multilateral talks.  At a fairly early stage in the bilateral talks, a revolution occurred in Rabin’s thinking.  Having started the talks from a `Syria last’ position, he switched to a `Syria first’ position and having planned to concentrate on Palestinian autonomy first, he put the autonomy taks on the back burner. 

As the head of the Israeli delegation for the talks with the Palestinians, Rabin retained Likud’s Eliakim Rubinstein.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this suggested continuity in Israeli policy.  Nor were there any radically different ideas on offer to counter this impression of continuity.  Real dialogue replaced sloganizing but the positions of the two parties remained wide apart. On the nature of the Palestinian authority, the Israeli concept remained essentially unchanged.  Israel offered elections to a 15-member Palestinian administrative council while the Palestinians demanded a 120-member parliament with real legislative authority.  Israel kept offering the delegation of tasks to the administrative council while the Palestinians kept insisting on a transfer of legislative authority.  The Israelis hinted that if only agreement could be reached on the concept of the Palestinian authority, all other issues would become much easier to solve but they excluded so many key areas of policy from the purview of this authority that no agreement could be reached.

Both sides had their own explanation for the lack of progress.  The Israelis claimed that the Palestinian delegation was paralysed by personal and factional conflicts, quite apart from the problems of co-ordination with the PLO leadership in Tunis, and that this rendered them incapable of responding in a reasonable manner to practical proposals.  The Palestinians claimed that Israel’s policy on the ground as well as her negotiating position were intended to perpetuate Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza.  They also suspected that Israel was seeking a separate peace with Syria.  But their chief complaint was that the Israeli autonomy proposals applied only to people and not to the land and that they did not define clearly the geographical boundaries of interim self-government.  `You have to define territoriality,’ insisted Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi.  `Even if the Israelis want to make us garbage collectors, you have to define the area where you collect your own garbage and where you dispose of your garbage.’

The real problem for the Palestinians is that while the negotiations with the Arab states were intended to lead to final peace settlements, their talks were only designed to produce an interim solution.  To get over this hurdle, they called for a direct link between the interim phase of self-government and the final status of the occupied territories.  Israel, however, could not or would not clarify which territories were to be under the jurisdiction of the proposed Palestinian council and which territories were to be excluded.  Shimon Peres explained: `Instead of attempting to draw up a map of a self-governing territory...we have suggested a definitive timetable.  While this proposal lacks the clarity of a map, it provides the commitment of a calendar.’  For the Palestinian negotiators this commitment was not enough. 

During the seventh round in November 1992, the ambiguity which had obscured the conceptual gap between the Israel and the Palestinian positions since the beginning of the talks finally disappeared.  It proved impossible for the two sides to agree on a first step because they were intent on marching in opposite directions.  The Palestinians wanted to end the occupation, the Israelis wanted to retain as much control as possible for as long as possible.  The Palestinians tried to negotiate the establishment of a pre-state Palestinian state.  They insisted that the interim agreement should permit and even lay the ground for the development of their sovereign state.  Israel was equally determined to prevent the interim agreement from resembling the embryo of a Palestinian state.  It insisted on keeping sole control of the Jewish settlements and the roads in the occupied territories during the transition period and to share control only of state land. 

Palestinians were outraged by this idea which, they said, would give them control over only about a third of the West Bank and legalize the Jewish settlements.  Nabil Shaath, the co-ordinator between the negotiating team in Washington and the PLO headquarters in Tunis, protested that the Israeli model offered so little territorial and functional integrity to the Palestinians that it was more like a Swiss cheese - full of holes.[5]

The PLO experts regarded the Israeli model as not only unjust but so complex as to be unworkable.  Yasser Arafat dismissed it as a non-starter and blamed Yitzhak Rabin for the deadlock.  `So far,’ protested the chairman of the PLO, `Rabin is refusing, like Shamir, to accept that 242 is applicable to Palestinian land.  He says we can discuss it later.  It seems he doesn’t want to accept that these are occupied territories.  He’s undermining the basis of the peace process.’[6]  Al Quds, a Palestinian paper in East Jerusalem, all but gave up on the peace process and took to calling it the `Penelope process’, after Ulysses’s wife who unravelled at night what she wove by day.

When the eighth round opened in Washington on 7 December, in the twilight of the Bush administration, the talks between Israel and the Palestinians were virtually at a dead end.  Negotiations about interim self-government were resumed but Israel continued to focus solely on the interim arrangements while the Palestinians tried, without success, to shift the focus to self-government.  To the American sponsors it seemed that the Israeli concept of interim self-government was fundamentally flawed.  But in its dying days the Bush administration was not well placed to persuade the Israelis that interim self-government means precisely what it says - a stage leading to full self-government.

Lack of concrete results from the peace process added to the frustration of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and boosted popular support for the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, which is opposed to negotiations with the Jewish state.  Round eight in the talks was due to end on 17 December but it ended abruptly on the previous day when Rabin announced his government’s decision to deport 416 Hamas activists to Lebanon following the kidnap and murder of an Israeli border policeman.  All the Arab delegations angrily suspended their participation in the peace talks and refused to set a date for their resumption.

Rabin was widely condemmed but unrepentant.  Government policy towards the Palestinians, he said, was two-pronged: fighting violent extremists while talking peace to the moderates.  But his deporation order was without precident and in flagrant violation of international law.  It outstripped the toughest measures of the Likud and out-Shamired Shamir.  None of the alleged Islamic activists had been charged, tried or allowed to appeal before being driven blind-folded into exile in Lebanon.  This act was intended to curb the rising influence of Hamas but it had the opposite effect.  It discredited the peace talks, strengthened the extremists and weakened the moderates.  It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.

The deportation exposed Rabin as an unreconstructed Arab-basher.  Having recognized the need to march with both feet, the military foot and the political foot, he reverted to his old habit of kicking only with the military foot.  Far from demonstrating that the only language that the Palestinians understand is force, his action revealed that force is the language he himself instinctively resorts to in dealing with the Palestinians.  Rabin had plainly stated that for him security takes precedence over peace and in this sense he was true to his word.  The problem about his notion of security is that it denied the basic human rights of the Palestinians.  This was a major reason for the lack of progress in the peace talks.  During the election campaign, Rabin ran as a candidate who would conclude an agreement on Palestinian autonomy within six to nine months.  Yet six months after taking office he dealt a body blow to the entire peace process by his savage treatment of the Palestinians.

The deporations boosted Rabin’s domestic popularity but they did not stem the tide of violence.  In March 1993 thirteen Israelis were murdered by knife-wielding fanatics.  Rabin’s response was one of massive retaliation.  On 30 March, he ordered the closure of Israel’s pre-1967 border to workers from the occupied territories.  Nearly 120,000 families were punished for the deeds of a handful of killers.  The closure achieved its immediate aim of reducing the incidence of violence but it also had much deeper significance.  It served Rabin’s new aim of bringing about Israel’s disengagement from the occupied territories.  It re-created the 1967 border and led to the economic and social separation of the Jewish and Palestinian communities.  The message was not lost on the Palestinian negotiators.  Israeli disengagement could be the prelude to Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories.

The ninth round of bilateral talks opened in Washington on 27 April, after a hiatus which lasted four and a half months.  To get the talks re-started, Israel made two significant concessions: acceptance of Faisal Husseini, despite his residence in East Jerusalem, as a negotiator and approval in principle for a Palestinian police force in the territories.  There was also evidence of greater Israeli flexibility on fundamentals.  The Israelis were now willing to admit a link between the interim and the final phase of Palestinian self-government.  They indicated that the body elected to govern the Palestinians for the five-year interim period could have some legislative powers.  And they affirmed that negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories would be based on UN Security Council resolution 242.  Having derided Israel’s previous proposals for self-government as Swiss cheese, the Palestinians now had something to chew on.  Having previously refused to discuss details before establishing an overall framework for a settlement, they now formed three working groups with the Israelis to discuss self-government, land and water, and human rights.

Despite this auspicious beginning, a document presented by the Palestinian delegation in response to the Israeli proposals revealed persistent divergence on three fundamental issues: the application of resolution 242, the relationship between the interim phase and the final phase, and the nature and powers of the interim Palestinian authority.  Firstly, the Palestinian document treated resolution 242 as a holy writ, valid at all stages and requiring total Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem and the settlements.  Israel, on the other hand, saw 242 as relevant only to the negotiations on final status and ruled out any withdrawal during the interim phase.  Secondly, while Israel admitted a link between the first stage of the agreement and the second stage but insisted on keeping all the options open, the Palestinians tried to extract a declaration of intent, making it clear that, when the time comes, Israel will withdraw from all the occupied territories.  Thirdly, the two sides could not agree on the powers of the Palestinian authority during the interim stage.  The Israeli version envisaged an executive council with limited legislative powers.  The Palestinian version envisaged an elected council which would assume all the powers exercised by the Israeli administration.[7]

In an attempt to move the peace talks off dead centre, the recently elected Clinton administration stepped up its involvement.  It formulated and presented to the Palestinians a working paper which proposed new terms of reference for the talks.  The Palestinian delegates, however, detected Israel’s thumb prints all over the American paper.  Reversing a 26-year old American policy, the paper accepted the Israeli claim that East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza are disputed - not occupied - territories.  The Palestinian delegation pointed out that the paper deviated from the terms of reference under which the talks were initiated and was therefore unsuitable even as a starting point for talks.

American intervention failed to move the talks off dead centre.  The 10th round, which lasted from 15 June until 1 July, ended in failure.  Little was expected and nothing was achieved.  In Israel the Rabin government began to attract criticism for its failure to deliver on its promise of agreement on Palestinian autonomy.  One critic accused it of missing a rare opportunity for settlement by clinging to its five noes: no to a Palestinian state, no to a return to the 1967 borders with only minor modifications, no to discussion of the permanent settlement, no to withdrawal from the Jordan Valley and the Etzion bloc, and no to negotiations with the PLO.[8]  Government spokesmen tried to evade responsibility for the deadlock by placing all the blame at the door of the Palestinians.  At least one thing was clear at the end of the 20 months and 10 rounds of Arab-Israeli peace talks: the Madrid formula was not capable of ushering in a new era of peace in the Middle East and a new formula had to be found.

Although the Madrid formula involved Israel in indirect negotiations with the PLO, Rabin resisted for a whole year the calls for formal recognition of the PLO.  He saw Yasser Arafat as the main obstacle to a deal on Palestinian autonomy and did his best to marginalize him, pinning his hopes on the local leaders from the occupied territories whom he considered more moderate and more pragmatic.  Experience taught him, however, that the local leaders could not act independently of the PLO chairman in Tunis and that, consequently, if he wanted a deal, he would have to cut it with his arch enemy. 

The failure of the official talks on the Palestinian track in Washington left Rabin with two alternatives: a deal with President Hafez al-Asad of 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 which did not entail an immediate commitment to withdraw from the West Bank or to dismantle Jewish settlements.  He opted for the second alternative.

Rabin knew that Shimon Peres, his foreign minister and erstwhile opponent, had established a secret channel for informal talks with PLO officials in Norway back in January.  At first Rabin showed little interest but in the course of the summer the talks made considerable progress.  It became clear that the PLO was bankrupt, divided an on the verge of collapse and therefore ready to settle for considerably less than the official negotiators in Washington.  Negotiations now began in earnest with Rabin and Peres directing the secret talks from Jerusalem and Arafat from Tunis.  Altogether 15 sessions were held over an eight-month period until an agreement was reached on mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and limited Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

This accord, despite all its limitations, defects and ambiguities, marks a major watershed in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.  It represents the beginning of the end of the movement towards Greater Israel.  This is why it would have been utterly inconceivable had Yitzhak Shamir remained in power.  At the signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Rabin declared: `I tell you Palestinians: we are doomed, you and we, to live together on the same plot of land, in the same country.’  It is equally inconceivable that Shamir would have uttered these words.  True, the two Yitzhaks are both hawks but there is an important difference: Yitzhak Shamir is an ideological hawk while Yitzhak Rabin is a security hawk.  The Israel-PLO deal compromises the ideology of Greater Israel; it does not compromise Israel’s security.

There is historic irony in the fact that it took a leader of Rabin’s renowned hawkishness on security, to bring the Labour Party back to the path of political moderation.  Historically, the Labour Party had been the party of humane and liberal Zionism, of political moderation, of reconciliation and compromise.  Under Golda Meir’s leadership, however, it veered towards messianic nationalism and territorial maximalism.  By reaching an agreement on Palestinian self-government, however limited in scope, Rabin carried his party back to its original acceptance of the principle of partition.  By officially recognizing the Palestinian people and the PLO as its representative, he took the first step towards correcting the tragic mistake to which his party succumbed in the aftermath of the 1967 victory.  By starting the withdrawal from occupied Arab territory, Rabin is not leading Israel to commit suicide, as his critics on the right claim, but laying the only secure foundation for peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians.

The very fact that Rabin reached an accord with the PLO demolishes the notion, so prevalent and persistent among Palestinians, that there is no real difference between the Labour Party and the Likud.  If the history of the peace talks began at Madrid teaches us anything, it is that the Labour Party is pragmatic in its approach to the Palestinian question whereas the Likud is not.  Indeed, the Israel-PLO accord represents the triumph of pragmatism on both sides.  After a hundred years of conflict and bloodshed, the two principal protagonists have put behind them the ideological dispute as to who is the rightful owner of Palestine and turned to addressing the practical problem of how to share the small piece of territory on which they are doomed to live together. 


[1] Avishai Margalit, `The Violent Life of YitzhakShamir,' The New York Review of Books, 14 May  1992.
[2] Interview with Joseph Harif in Ma'ariv, 26 June 1992.
[3] Avishai Margalit, `The General's Main Chance,' The New York Review of Books, 11 June 1992.
[4] Divrei Haknesset (Proceedings of the Knesset), 13 July 1992.
[5] Yezid Sayigh, `Israel and the Palestinians: Reinstating Occupation, Legalizing Annexation', Middle East International, No. 440, 8 December 1992.
[6] Interview with Ian Black, The Guardian, 7  December 1992.
[7] Dani Rubinstein, `Significant Gap Regarding the Nature of the Settlement', Ha'aretz, 13 June 1993
[8] Shmuel Toledano, `The Illusion Celebrates', Ha'aretz, 9 July 1993.