The Comatose Peace Process

Avi Shlaim

Oxford Today, Hilary Term 2001.

The visit of Ariel Sharon, the leader of the right-wing Likud, to the Muslim holy shrines in the old city of Jerusalem, on 28 September 2000, precipitated the breakdown of the Middle East peace process. It was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. Israel reacted with disproportionate force to the Palestinian protests against the visit, fuelling a new cycle of violence and bloodshed. On both sides, the men with the guns took over. A new Palestinian uprising got under way and it became known as the al-Aqsa intifada. In eight weeks of bloody clashes, it claimed 270 lives, most of them Palestinians. The Oslo accords were in tatters.

Seven years elapsed since prime minister Itzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had sealed the historic compromise between their two nations at the White House, with Bill Clinton acting as Master of Ceremonies. The accord they signed was not a full-blown peace treaty but a Declaration of Principles on Palestinian Self-government in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. The shape of the final settlement was not specified in the declaration but left for negotiation between the two parties towards the end of the five-year transition period. Similarly, the declaration was completely silent on the most sensitive issues in the dispute, such as the status of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the right of return of the 1948 refugees, and the borders of the Palestinian entity. These issues, too, were deferred until the final status negotiations.

Despite all its limitations and ambiguities, the Oslo accord marked a turning point in the century old-conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. For it was an agreement between the two principal parties to the conflict: Israelis and Palestinians. The two parties replaced mutual rejection by mutual recognition; they acknowledged that the other party had legitimate national rights; and they resolved to settle their outstanding differences by peaceful means. The basic assumption on the Israeli side was that the experience of working together during the transition period would eventually produce a  peace settlement which would safeguard Israel’s security. The Palestinians assumed that by giving up their claim to 78 per cent of mandatory Palestine, they would secure an independent state over most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Implementing the declaration took much longer than planned. Underlying the difficulties and the delays was a basic conceptual divide. The Israelis aimed at a gradual and strictly limited transfer of powers and the retention of as much control as possible over the territories in their own hands. They wanted to repackage rather than end Israel’s military occupation. The Palestinians pressed for an extensive transfer of power, an end to the occupation, and rapid progress towards full independence. The Oslo II agreement, signed on 28 September 1995, represented a significant step in that direction. But it also provoked a right-wing backlash which culminated in the assassination of Itzhak Rabin. Shimon Peres followed Rabin down the pot-holed road to peace with the Palestinians but his efforts were cut short by his electoral defeat in May 1996.

The emergence of Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a Likud-led government dealt a body blow to the cause of peace in the Middle East. For whereas the Labour Party is a pragmatic party which stands for territorial compromise, the Likud is an ideological party which regards the West Bank as an integral part of the Land of Israel. Although Netanyahu won by a margin of less than one per cent, he abruptly reversed the foreign policy of his Labour predecessors. In the Arab world, his government’s Basic Guidelines were seen as a declaration of war on the peace process. Netanyahu, for his part, regarded the Oslo accords as a violation of  Israel’s historic right to Judea and Samaria and a threat to its security. Consequently, during his three years in power, he strove to freeze, subvert, and derail the Oslo accords ― only to discover that the process they set in motion had become irreversible.

Ehud Barak’s landslide victory in the May 1999 election was widely expected to revive the moribund peace process. In the Epilogue  to my book The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World  I called Barak’s victory “the sunrise after the three dark and terrible years during which Israel had been led by the unreconstructed proponents of the iron wall.”  Barak soon dashed the hopes pinned on him. He presented himself as Rabin’s disciple, as a soldier who turned from fighting the Arabs to peace-making. But he lacked the vision, the political courage, and the personal qualities that were necessary to follow through on the peace partnership with the Palestinians. It was not for nothing that during his army days Barak used to be called Little Napoleon. In politics, too, his style is arrogant and authoritarian and he approaches diplomacy as the extension of war by other means.

The greatest barrier on the road to peace with the Palestinians raised  by Barak was the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Settlement activity is not contrary to the letter of the Oslo accord, but it is contrary to its spirit. True, settlement activity had gone on  under all previous prime ministers, Labour as well as Likud. But under Barak settlement activity gathered pace: more houses were constructed, more Arab land was confiscated, more access roads were built to isolated Jewish settlements. For the Palestinian population these settlements are not just a symbol of the hated occupation but a source of daily friction and a constant reminder of the danger to the territorial contiguity of their future state.

Another reason for the slowdown on the Palestinian track was the clear preference articulated by Barak for a deal with Syria first on the grounds that Syria is a serious military power whereas the Palestinians are not. During his first six months in power Barak concentrated almost exclusively on the Syrian track, leaving the Palestinians to twist in the wind. When the late Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, rejected his final offer, Barak turned, belatedly and reluctantly, to the Palestinian track. His reservations about the Oslo accord were well known. He argued that the step-by-step approach of trading land for peace does not serve Israel’s interests because the Palestinians will always come back for more. So he insisted that the Palestinian Authority commit itself to an absolutely final end to the conflict and, in doing so, he brought the negotiations to a standstill.

This became clear at the summit meeting at Camp David in July 2000 which Bill Clinton convened at Barak’s request. Barak pressed for the meeting in the confident belief that, with the help of the American “peace processors”, he would be able to impose his terms for a final status agreement on Yasser Arafat. At the summit Barak presented a package which addressed all the core issues in the dispute: Palestinian statehood, borders,  Jerusalem, and refugees. He offered a demilitarised Palestinian state on more than 90 per cent  of the West Bank and Gaza, shared sovereignty in Jerusalem, and token concessions to the 1948 refugees. Barak’s blunder was to insist that in return for these limited concessions  Arafat had to renounce any further Palestinian claims against the State of Israel. This was not a reasonable or realistic proposition. Arafat could not formally surrender basic Palestinian national rights,  above all the right of return of the 1948 refugees, and he was warned by the Egyptians and the Saudis not to compromise Muslim rights over the holy places in the old city of Jerusalem. So Arafat resisted Israeli and American pressure and returned home to a hero’s welcome.

With the collapse of the Camp David summit, the countdown to the outbreak of the next round of violence began. Ariel Sharon’s visit to Islam’s third holiest shrine provided the spark that set off the explosion. As so often in the past, the sound of gunfire drowned  the dialogue of the diplomats. Violence is, of course, no stranger to the region. Even after the signing of the Oslo accord, diplomacy was sometimes  interspersed with bursts of violence. Now fierce fighting was interspersed with small doses of ineffectual diplomacy. Positions hardened on both sides and the tit-for-tat gathered its own momentum. Neither side wanted to be seen as willing to back down. Yasser Arafat saw no contradiction between the intifada and negotiations. On the contrary, he hoped that the intifada would give him more leverage in dealing with the Israelis. Ehud Barak insisted that the incitement and the violence had to end before he would return to the negotiating table. His announcement of “time out” signaled the abandonment of the political track until further notice. In the absence of talks, military analysts predicted a long and nasty low-intensity conflict that would only cease when both sides succumb to battle fatigue.

After the guns fall silent, and after the dead are buried, the politicians will resume the talks on final status where they left off. They will have to return to the negotiating table for the simple reason that neither side has a viable alternative to a negotiated settlement. Edward Said, the leading Palestinian intellectual, called his last book The End of the Peace Process. This title strikes me as too dramatic and too definitive: the peace process has broken down but it is not dead. Like Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, I tend to believe that nations are capable of acting rationally — after they have exhausted all the other alternatives.