When Bush Comes to Shove: America and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Avi Shlaim

The Oxford International Review, 3:2, 1992, 2-6.

The Pope, according to a no doubt apocryphal story, maintains that there are two possible solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict -the realistic and the miraculous.  The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous solution involves a voluntary agreement between the parties themselves.  A third possible solution, not foreseen by the Pope, is one that involves American intervention.  The Middle East peace conference which convened in Madrid at the end of October 1991 represented the most serious attempt to date on the part of the United States to promote a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Two events of cosmic significance enabled America to revive what had euphemistically come to be called the Middle East peace process: the end of the Cold War and the end of the hot war in the Gulf. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower orphaned Moscow's former military clients - Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and the radical Palestinian factions - and pulled the rug from underneath the Arab rejection front that always opposed any peace settlement with Israel.  Without Soviet arms supplies and diplomatic backing, there was little the Arab radicals could do except sulk in their tents.  The collapse of the Soviet empire also meant that America no longer had to contend with a credible rival in the Middle East.  Soviet-American competition was replaced by Soviet-American cooperation, with America as the dominant power and the Soviet Union reduced almost to the level of an assistant.  Once the Cold War ended, the Middle East naturally ceased to be an arena for waging the Cold War.  The ending of the global contest between the two principal protagonists thus made possible, or at least conceivable, the ending of the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis.

The Gulf War showed the extent to which the ground rules had changed following the end of the Cold War.  The scenario that actually unfolded following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait would have been utterly inconceivable under conditions of intense Soviet-American competitiveness.  Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War re-cast inter-Arab relations, dealing a further blow to the rejection front.  Syria, once the standard-bearer of Arab rejectionism and Moscow's closest Arab ally, joined in the American-led coalition against Iraq.  The moderate, pro-American Saudi-Egyptian axis became more powerful within the Arab world and more assertive in pushing for a strong American role.  For all the Arab members, the hastily assembled alliance with America against the Iraqi dictator now held longer-term attractions.  The war-time alliance laid the foundations for a peace-time alliance.  Having followed America's lead in war, the Arabs were more willing than ever before to follow her lead in peace.

The decline of Soviet power and Saddam's adventure also had a profound impact on US-Israeli relations.  Together they called into question the notion that Israel was a strategic asset for America.  The huge levels of US aid to Israel had been justified on the grounds that Israel helped to protect American interests in this vital part of the world against the twin threats of communism and pan-Arab nationalism.  But the communist threat had vanished and when the crucial test came in the war with Iraq, America's much-vaunted strategic asset proved to be an embarrassment and a liability.  By attacking Israel Saddam tried, but ultimately failed, to achieve two objectives: to turn an Arab-Arab conflict into an Arab-Israeli one and to drive a wedge between the Arabs and America by highlighting America's commitment to Israel.  Under the circumstances, the best service Israel could render to her ally was to do nothing, to sit back and take punches on the chin.  Once Iraqi Scud missiles started falling on Tel-Aviv, the Americans were obliged to assume an additional defence burden by rushing in anti-Scud Patriot missile batteries with their crews.  Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger who had the unenviable task of keeping the Israelis under leash ended up as a virtual hostage in Jerusalem.  The most polite expression American officials could think of to describe Israel's role during the war was irrelevant.  Most of them thought that Israel was a nuisance and an expensive nuisance.

Having done their duty by their ally, it was inevitable that American policy-makers would start asking themselves whether they really needed Israel.  What could Israel offer that could not be provided by their Arab friends?  For the strategist looking for an unsinkable aircraft carrier, the USS Fahd offered a bigger flight deck than the USS Shamir.  The Gulf states were also infinitely more valuable to America as a market for goods and services and as a source of oil.  Bush and Baker, two former Texas oil men with no sentimental attachment to Israel, had little difficulty in reaching the conclusion that their country's vital interests lay where the black gold was.

The end of the Gulf War gave the Bush Administration both an opportunity and an impetus to re-engage in the Arab-Israeli peace process.  Saddam Hussein, in one of those curious paradoxes that punctuate the history of the Middle East, could claim some of the credit for the convening of the peace conference in Madrid.  For it was he who, in the famous linkage proposal of 12 August 1990, suggested an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories as the price for a possible Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.  Before threatening the mother of all battles, Saddam had thus unleashed the mother of all linkages.

President Bush rejected the proposed linkage so as not to appear to reward Saddam's aggression, and in order to deflate his claim to be the champion of the Palestinians.  But Bush could not, without exposing himself to the charge of double standards, insist that Saddam should comply instantly with UN orders to withdraw from Kuwait without accepting that Israel should eventually be made to comply with the strikingly similar demands of Security Council resolution 242 which had been on the table since 1967.  Bush's way round this problem was to intimate that he would seek a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute once Iraq had been booted out of Kuwait.  Eight trips by his Secretary of State to the Middle East, culminating in the mother of all peace conferences in Madrid, showed that the Texas oil men were as good as their word.

There was another reason behind President Bush's determination to bring the Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table: he needed a diplomatic victory to obscure the inconclusive result of the war he had waged.  He needed to demonstrate that the crusade he had led against Iraq had been worthwhile despite the casualties, the destruction, the environmental damage, the suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people and the failure to topple Saddam Hussein.  The Gulf War was the jewel in Bush's crown, but with the passage of time it began to lose its gleam.  Bush's critics at home started using Saddam's continued hold on power, and the fact that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia remained as undemocratic as ever, to tarnish the glow of the Gulf victory.  To answer his critics, Bush wanted a political achievement of cosmic significance and such an achievement could not be found in the Gulf; it could only be sought in the eastern Mediterranean.  Implicitly, Bush was now positing another kind of linkage - that victory in the Gulf paved the way to peace in the Middle East.

Getting the Arabs and Israelis round the conference table, however, was no easy matter. Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's right-wing Prime Minister, was the toughest nut to crack because his ideological commitment to the land of Israel left very little room for compromise with the Arabs.  Yet Israel's dependence on American financial help in coping with large-scale Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union gave Bush unprecedented leverage.  He exploited this leverage to the full.  By withholding the $10 billion loan guarantee requested by Shamir, Bush forced the Israelis to the negotiating table.

Nor was it simply a question of the loan guarantee.  America had given Israel aid totalling $77 billion, and continues to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $4 billion a year.  Never in the annals of human history have so few owed to much to so many.  Bush himself felt he owed no debt either to Israel or to American Jewry.  He had been Vice-President for eight years in the most pro-Israeli administration in American history, yet he got only five per cent of the Jewish vote in the 1988 presidential elections.  Bush was thus in a strong position domestically to present Shamir with a choice: keep the occupied territories or keep US support.

President Hafez al-Asad of Syria was another awkward customer.  He ended up by accepting the invitation to Madrid not as a result of a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus to the idea of peace with Israel, but because he had lost the support of his old superpower patron and had to make his peace with the sole remaining superpower.  To those who accused him of capitulating to American pressure, Asad quoted the Arab saying that you have to decide whether you want the grapes or a fight with the vineyard keeper.  He left no room for doubt that he wanted the grapes.  Once Asad agreed to go to Madrid on America's terms, the government of Lebanon meekly followed his example. It was a relief to be at the peace table rather than on the peace table.

King Hussein of Jordan, having aroused the wrath of America and her Gulf allies by his association with Saddam Hussein, was anxious to rehabilitate himself and resume the flow of badly needed economic aid.  He therefore readily agreed to the formation of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation in order to provide an umbrella for Palestinian participation in the peace talks.

Excluding the PLO from the peace table was not too difficult after it had placed itself in the dog-house by its support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf crisis.  Over the last few years, the political centre of gravity within the Palestinian national movement had been shifting in any case from the PLO leadership in Tunis to the local leadership in the occupied territories.  The intifada, a full-scale revolt against Israeli rule which broke out in December 1987, was initially successful in placing the Palestinian problem high on the international agenda, but later it started to lose much of its focus and energy and degenerated into internecine killings.  Meanwhile, the Israeli government, led by aggressive and Arab-scorning Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, accelerated the drive to build new Jewish settlements on the West Bank.  This made the local leaders desperate to play the few cards they still had left before it was too late.

James Baker was very blunt with the Palestinians.  He kept telling them that their only chance to stop Israel's galloping annexation of the West Bank lay in going to Madrid on his terms and he warned them that the bus to Madrid would come only once.  Baker insisted on excluding the PLO and residents of East Jerusalem and on a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation rather than an independent Palestinian one.  He refused to make concessions of an even symbolic nature.  There was to be no Palestinian flag and no keffiyas, the traditional Palestinian head-dress, in Madrid.  The Palestinians had to turn up in business suits, just like Texas oil men.  In return for paying this stiff price for their ticket of admission to Madrid, Baker promised the Palestinians substantive negotiations on a footing of equality with Israel.  This they had never been offered before.

Baker also told the Palestinians that if they got on board his bus, it would probably carry them to self-government.  It was crucial, he argued, to gain momentum in the peace process, to put pressure on Israel to start making concessions.  Once they were convinced that a genuine change had taken place in America's attitude to Israel, the Palestinians agreed to participate in the peace talks on Baker's terms.

The Madrid peace conference was carefully stage-managed by the Americans, with Baker acting as the chief puppeteer.  It was he and his aides who picked the venue for the conference, issued the formal invitations, provided written assurances to each participant and laid down that the basis for the negotiations would be Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of exchanging territory for peace.

During the lead-up to Madrid, Baker followed the advice of Theodore Roosevelt: he spoke softly and carried a big stick.  To diversify the range of weapons in his armoury, Baker also carried with him a few carrots.  And it was by a skilful manipulation of the carrot and the stick that he eventually persuaded all the parties to attend the conference - his conference.

Everybody was there in Madrid bar the British, despite the fact that the seeds of the conflict under discussion had been planted in the Balfour Declaration which pledged support for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine while ignoring the political rights of the Arab majority.  Although none of the participants mentioned the Balfour Declaration, it was curious to reflect that it had all begun with a one sentence letter from the British foreign secretary to Lord Rothschild back in 1917, the year that the Soviet Union was born.

The other notable absentee was the United Nations whose agenda over the past four and a half decades has been dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Two previous Middle East peace conferences had been held under the auspices of the United Nations, in Lausanne in 1949 and in Geneva in 1973.  The first was a prolonged exercise in futility, the second a fiasco which lasted only one day.  What these abortive conferences demonstrated was that the world organisation does not have the capacity to settle one of the most persistent and dangerous conflicts of modern times.  If the peace process launched in Madrid has better prospects of success it is because it carries the label Made in the USA.

Having the Soviet Union as a nominal co-sponsor of the conference was helpful to America in two ways.  First, it provided the Arab participants with some defence against criticism from their radical constituencies that they were simply marching to an American tune.  Second, it enabled America to have the best of both worlds: a pliant Soviet partner and a plausible justification for excluding the United Nations from the action.  The Soviet presence was used to legitimize what was in fact a unilateral American diplomatic initiative.

At the opening session of the peace talks in the Palacio Real in Madrid, President Bush stood as the proud victor in two wars: the Cold War and the Gulf War.  He showed magnanimity in victory by saying that the United States and the Soviet Union were there not as rivals but as partners.  But it was all too obvious from President Gorbachev's pathetic speech about his country's economic needs that the Soviet Union was there as America's assistant.  The Soviet Union was not in Madrid to compete with America, but rather to compete with Arabs and Israelis for American largesse.  Gorbachev's speech irrevocably ended any residual pretension on the part of the Soviet Union to being a superpower in its own right.

President Bush was faultlessly even-handed: by calling for peace based on security he pleased the Israelis; by calling for peace based on fairness he pleased the Palestinians.  The United States, he said, in one of the few understatements of the conference, was simply there to facilitate the search for peace, to serve as a catalyst.

The opening speeches by the heads of Israeli and the Palestinian delegations faithfully reflected the positions of the two sides.  Mr Shamir, like the Bourbons of France, seemed to have learnt nothing and to have forgotten nothing.  The whole tone of his speech was anachronistic, saturated with the stale rhetoric of the past.  He used the platform to deliver the first ever Israel Bonds speech in front of an Arab audience.  His version of the Arab-Israeli conflict was singularly narrow and blinkered, portraying Israel simply as the victim of Arab aggression and refusing to acknowledge that any evolution had taken place in the Arab or Palestinian attitudes to Israel.  All the Arabs, according to Shamir, want to see Israel destroyed, the only difference between them is over the ways to bring about her destruction.  His speech, while long on anti-Arab clichיs, was exceedingly short on substance.  By insisting that the root cause of the conflict is not territory but the Arab refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel, Mr Shamir came dangerously close to rejecting the whole basis of the conference - UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace.

Dr Abdul Shafi's basic message was that Israeli occupation must be ended, the Palestinians have a right to self-determination, and that they are determined to pursue this right relentlessly until they achieve statehood.  The Intifada, he suggested, had already begun to embody the Palestinian state and to build its institutions and infrastructure.  But while staking a claim to Palestinian statehood, Dr Abdul Shafi qualified it in two significant ways.  First, he accepted the need for a transitional stage, provided interim arrangements were not transformed into permanent status.  Second, he envisaged a confederation between an ultimately independent Palestine and Jordan.

As the head of the Palestinian delegation was delivering his speech, Israel's stone-faced Prime Minister passed a note to a colleague.  One of the five thousand journalists covering the conference was moved to speculate that it said: 'We made a big mistake.  We should have insisted that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.'

Dr Abdul Shafi's speech in Madrid was both the most eloquent and the most moderate presentation of the Palestinian case ever made by an official Palestinian spokesman since the beginning of the conflict at the end of the last century.  The PLO, for all its growing moderation, has never been able to articulate such a clear-cut peace overture to Israel because of its internal divisions and the constraints of inter-Arab politics.  No PLO official had ever been able to declare so unambiguously that a Palestinian state would be ready for a confederation with Jordan.  The whole tenor of the speech was more conciliatory and constructive than even the most moderate statements of the PLO.  In the words of one PLO official, the speech was 'unreasonably reasonable.'

There was a palpable feeling of history in the making as the soft-spoken doctor from Gaza read his text in the magnificent Hall of Columns in the royal palace in Madrid. Future historians will look back on 31 October 1991 as a landmark in the quest for reconciliation between the national claims of the Palestinians and the Israelis.

If the Palestinians proved to Mr Shamir that he could no longer rely on them to let him off the hook, he had better luck with Mr Farouk al-Shara, the Foreign Minister of Syria.  Shara played the old record of rejectionism and vituperation.  He was without doubt the most militant and radical Arab representative in Madrid and he was also the most isolated.  The conference degenerated into an unseemly slanging match between the Israeli and the Syrian.  Mr Shamir denounced Syria as one of the most repressive and tyrannical regimes in the world.  Mr Shara replied in Kind, denouncing Israel as a terrorist state led by a former terrorist and later refused to answer questions at a press conference from Israeli journalists.  Shara was like a bat trying to fly in the daylight.  His performance revealed what a closed dark place Syria still is, notwithstanding its move from the Soviet camp into the American camp.  Against the background of this strident display of Syrian rejectionism, the readiness of the Palestinians to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Israelis was all the more striking.

After the plenary session was over, stage two of the peace process began in Madrid.  It took the form of a series of separate bilateral meetings between Israel and each of the three Arab delegations.  Here too the Syrians were the most rigid and intransigent, while the Palestinians seemed more eager than any of the Arab delegations to forge ahead with the talks in order to bring about a freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.  As a result of these differences the common Arab front collapsed.  Syria held out for a unified Arab position to back its demand of an Israeli commitment to trade the Golan Heights for peace before the bilateral talks began.  Among the Palestinian delegates there was considerable irritation with Syria's attempt to set an overall Arab agenda in the talks.  They broke ranks with Syria and not only held their meeting with the Israelis but shook hands in front of the cameras.  What the Palestinians were saying, in effect, was that Syria had no power of veto over their own moves and that they would not allow the peace process with Israel to be held hostage to inter-Arab politics.

One of the distinguishing marks of the madrid conference was the emergence of a Palestinian-American axis.  Of all the delegations to Madrid, the Palestinians were the only ones who agreed to nearly all the American requests on both procedure and substance.  It was the American officials who advised the Palestinians to appeal to the American public and this advice was followed almost to the point of neglecting public opinion in other countries.  In order to minimise the risk of an Israeli walk-out, the Americans went with the Palestinians over different scenarios before the conference began and they were well pleased with the performance put on subsequently by the novices in their dיbut on the international stage in Madrid.  In his closing speech Mr Baker even paid tribute to Palestinians like Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi 'whose personal courage in the face of enormous pressures has created the possibility of a better life for the Palestinians.'

What mattered much more than the polished performance by the novices, was that they were a lot closer than the Israelis to the American position in Madrid.  They explicitly accepted that the negotiations should be based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace, whereas Israel did not.  They got on board the bus which Mr Baker told them would come only once, whereas Mr Shamir continued to quibble over the fare, the powers of the driver,the rights of other passengers, the speed of the bus, the route and the final destination.

The official American position towards the Arab-Israeli conflict has remained unchanged since 1967.  America supports the exchange of land for peace, refuses to acknowledge the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and regards the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as illegal and an obstacle to peace.  What has changed is the evident determination of the Bush administration to do more than repeat these positions like a gramophone record.  The moderation shown by the Palestinians in Madrid made it easier for the Bush administration to tilt further in their direction and away from Israel.  As the conference drew to a close, all the signs were that when Bush came to shove, the Palestinians would be on the side of the most powerful man on earth.

In his concluding remarks Mr Baker repeated the polite fiction that America will not impose its own ideas but act as the honest broker in furthering the peace process.  But he knows, and everybody else does, that the Arab-Israeli conflict requires more than an honest broker for its resolution.  The lesson of history is that a settlement cannot come from within the Middle East; it has to be imposed from the outside.  The gulf between the positions of the two sides is too wide to be bridged by direct negotiations.  America is the only power on earth with the resources and the authority to bridge this gulf.  In Madrid America demonstrated that she also has the commitment and determination to pursue her vision of peace for the Middle East.  It was only a beginning, but a fair, and therefore highly promising, beginning.    

Subsequent developments, however,soon dashed many of the hopes that the Madrid encounter had raised.  Just as the Gulf War was a neat war followed by a messy peace, so Madrid was a neat peace conference with a messy sequel. Kick-starting the peace process was one thing; staying the course was quite another.  In peace as in war the Bush administration proved to be rather better at generating a concentrated burst of activity than at sustained political and intellectual effort.  Once again, the Bush administration deserved the lion's share of the credit for the promising start and some of the blame for the subsequent faltering.

The administration invited all the parties to hold substantive bilateral peace talks in Washington starting on December 14.  The Palestinians accepted with alacrity:  at long last they were going to get into the corridors of power.  The Israelis, on the other hand, delayed their arrival in Washington by a few days to register a protest at what they saw as an increasingly abrasive and one-sided American approach to the peace talks.  The last thing they wanted was the kind of brisk and concrete down-to-business approach urged by the Americans.  Mr Shamir who had been suspicious of the peace process from the start came under growing pressure from the settlement lobby and his right-wing coalition partners not to make any concessions on Palestinian autonomy.  A past master at playing for time, he resorted to all his familiar tricks of obstinacy, obfuscation and obstruction.

The issue used by Shamir to spoil the talks was the status of the Palestinians.  On the last day of the Madrid talks an understanding was reached that in the bilateral phase the Israelis would negotiate separately with the Palestinians and the Jordanians.  Accordingly, the Americans prepared two rooms in the State Department,one for the Israeli and Palestinian teams and one for the Israeli and Jordanian teams. But on arrival in the State Department, the Israelis insisted on negotiating with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to underline their opposition to a separate Palestinian entity.  For six days the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations haggled in the corridor of the State Department, unable to agree even to enter the negotiation room.  The American hosts thoughtfully placed a sofa in the corridor.  This bizarre experience added a new term to the rich lexicon of the Arab-Israeli conflict - corridor diplomacy.  But the only thing the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could agree on was that the coffee in the State Department was undrinkable.

Matters of substance were discussed in the Israeli-Syrian and the Israeli-Lebanese talks but no progress was made.  Throughout the talks the Americans maintained a 'hands off' approach, telling the negotiators to sort out their own problems.  James Baker was away on a visit to the Soviet Union which was about to go out of business.  George Bush was preoccupied with domestic problems not the least of which was the spectacular fall in his own popularity, from the peak it had reached during the Gulf War.  The upshot was that instead of going forward into negotiations on substance,the Washington talks remained bogged down in procedural wrangles.  Washington represented not a step forward but a step back from Madrid. There was no ratchet mechanism and no American intervention to stop the back-sliding.

It took another round of talks in Washington, in early January 1992, to break the procedural deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front.  A compromise was reached on the status of the Palestinians that enabled both sides to claim victory.  Israel was to negotiate with two separate sub-committees consisting of nine Palestinians and two Jordanians on Palestinian-related issues and nine Jordanians and two Palestinians on Jordan-related issues.  With a sigh of relief Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, announced that 'corridor diplomacy' had ended.

The move from corridor diplomacy to proper negotiating forum set the alarm bells ringing in Israel.  The settlers stepped up their pressure on the government to break off negotiations and crack down harder on intifada activity.  Mr. Shamir's two small right-wing partners, Tehia and Moledet, resigned from the government because Palestinian autonomy was put on the agenda for future talks.  Their resignation deprived Mr Shamir of his majority in the Knesset and forced him to bring forward the date of the elections.  With Israel heading for elections in the summer of 1992, the peace process was relegated to a state of limbo.  The prospects for real progress therefore looked distinctly bleak following what was hailed as a major procedural breakthrough in Washington.   It is difficult to avoid the impression that Mr Shamir's real aim from the beginning was to scuttle the peace talks in a way for which the Arabs could be blamed or, failing that, to wait for the Israeli and the US presidential elections to ensure that nothing happened.

The principal lesson of the Washington round is that Arab-Israeli peace negotiations cannot go forward without constant and high-level American engagement.  Do-it-yourself peace is a laudable aspiration, but it cannot work unless both sides are equally committed to achieving it.  For the Arabs and Israelis to achieve peace without American intervention would be nothing short of a miracle.