The End of the Post-Gulf War Era

, March 15, 2000

No. 426   8 Adar II 5760 / 15 March 2000

Changing Conditions in the 1990s

Three basic conditions prevailed when the Arab-Israeli peace process began in 1991 in Madrid and accelerated in 1993 at Oslo. First, the Soviet Union crumbled and eventually collapsed, removing what had since 1955 been the strategic backbone of the Arab military option against the State of Israel. Second, Iraq was militarily crushed and under both UN sanctions and monitoring, and was therefore removed from the political and military calculus of relations between Israel and the Arab world. Third, Iran was still recovering from its eight-year war with Iraq and was far from ready to have an impact in the Middle East. Together, these three conditions created a unique moment of Pax Americana, maintained not just by virtue of American power, but by the consent of its potential rivals.

By the end of the 1990s, each of these three conditions had radically changed. The Soviet Union did not come back to life, but by mid-decade Russia no longer acquiesced to unilateral American hegemony in the Middle East. The change in Russia’s Middle East policy coincided with Evgenii Primakov’s appointment as foreign minister in January 1996 and the Russian-American struggle over NATO expansion, and continued even after both of those events had passed.

The Middle East offered Russia an alternative to its old sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and in the order of priorities of the Clinton administration, the expansion of NATO was too important to upset with a full-court press against Russia’s Middle East moves. Moreover, as the struggle for Caspian Sea oil pipeline routes escalated, Russian-Iranian cooperation became more important for Moscow. In the aftermath of Russian-American friction over Kosovo and Chechnya, and the declaration of a new Russian security doctrine in January 2000 under Vladimir Putin, the differences between the two countries have widened even further.

The Russian split with Washington beginning in 1996 led to a breakdown in the consensus of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council over the UN’s monitoring of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Russians did not need to re-insert large fleets into the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean in order to oppose American power, as in the Cold War period. In fact, for Russia, the UN Security Council was a special domain where it could preserve its great-power status by using its veto power in order to compete against the U.S. France eventually joined the Russian side.

From 1996 to 1998, Saddam Hussein successfully exploited this growing split in order to challenge, constrain, and finally destroy UNSCOM, the UN monitoring body. Even when the UN Security Council voted on December 17, 1999, to create a new agency, UNMOVIC, to replace UNSCOM, the Russians, along with the Chinese and the French, abstained. The new resolution represented a further erosion in the Western position with respect to Iraq since it proposed, for the first time, a suspension of sanctions even if Iraqi disarmament had only progressed but had not been completed, as past UN Security Council resolutions had demanded. Not only were sanctions diluted, but also it seemed that the monitoring regime would be weaker; since that vote, Russian diplomacy has sought to make UNMOVIC into another Third World agency like UNRWA rather than the original UNSCOM.

Finally, with the full benefit of Russian missile technology, Iran has already tested a missile with a 1,300-kilometer range – the Shihab-3 – which is capable of striking Israel from launching points within Iranian territory. Even longer-range Iranian missiles are known to be under development. Pointing to yet another major milestone in Iran’s emergence as a regional power, the New York Times reported on January 17, 2000, that over the past month the Central Intelligence Agency had sharply altered its assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability. The CIA now believes that, given the failure to weaken the long-standing relationship between Iran and Russia, the possibility that Iran already has atomic weapons can no longer be ruled out. It must be emphasized that these capabilities are in the hands of Iran’s religious leadership rather than under the control of President Khatami or more moderate elements in the Iranian parliament. Nonetheless, the U.S. was prepared by mid-March 2000 to scale back its own economic sanctions against Iran, though no change in Iranian behavior was yet apparent.

The Effect on Arab-Israel Peace

For Israel there is a basic question of how this shift in the strategic envelope of the Middle East affects the Arab-Israeli peace process. For its part, the Clinton administration recognized, right from the start, the interdependence between the peace process and these wider strategic developments, particularly in the Gulf region. Upon declaring the administration’s doctrine of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran in 1993, Martin Indyk, who is now U.S. ambassador to Israel, noted that peace in the western part of the Middle East was reinforcing the containment of Iraq and Iran in the eastern part of the region.

Implicitly, containment was supposed to help neutralize Middle Eastern radicalism, thereby leading to more moderate political viewpoints on the part of Israel’s neighbors, while the peace process was meant to help the U.S. build a coalition for containment. American policy, however, has been silent about what Israel should do now that “dual containment” has completely failed and the Pax Americana of the early 1990s has eroded – with one exception. During 1997 and 1998, the Clinton administration directly blamed Israel for the failure of its Iraq policy, arguing that it could not hold together the anti-Saddam coalition because of the stalemate between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat.

This was simply untrue. The anti-Iraq coalition was born in late 1990, even before there was a peace process. Already in October 1994, America’s Arab partners were jumping from the coalition when Saddam Hussein massed armor on the Kuwaiti border. At the time, Israel was moving full steam ahead with new agreements with the PLO and Jordan, which apparently had no effect on the coalition partners. When the Russians and the French split from the U.S. on the UN Security Council in 1996, Israeli-Palestinian relations were not even a factor. In short, the peace process has little proven impact on the state of America’s anti-Iraq coalition. Israel was a convenient target for the administration. It was easier to squeeze the Israeli government to satisfy Arafat’s need for more land than to gain Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions. But, in fact, larger global factors, which Washington failed to handle, were involved in the weakening of the coalition.

It is possible to discern the impact of the decline of Pax Americana in the Middle East and the end of the post-Gulf War era on the peace process. After all, the Arab world was coming to terms with Israel in the early 1990s because it sought American protection, money, and diplomatic influence in what was set to become a unipolar world. By mid-decade, U.S. military action against Iraq was not decisive, its aid to Israel’s peace partners was limited, and its diplomatic clout in a multilateral coalition was declining. If the U.S. could only deliver to the Arabs less than they had anticipated, why should they warm to Israel? It was not surprising that Arab negotiating positions hardened and that there were few regional breakthroughs after each Israeli-Palestinian accord, from Hebron to Wye to Sharm el Sheikh. The regional mood soured.

For Jordan, the renewal of Iraqi activism in 1996, including ground incursions into the Western-protected “safe haven” in Kurdistan, eroded American prestige, since the U.S. intelligence position in northern Iraq suffered a serious setback. Iraq no longer behaved like a defeated power. Fire fights on the Iraq-Jordanian border followed. Jordan openly charged that bread riots in August-September 1996, induced by a government price hike, were the product of Iraqi incitement. Indeed, tens of thousands of Iraqi foreign workers were living in Jordan, some of whom could be manipulated by Baghdad during times of tension. Jordan’s sense of heightened vulnerability only increased Amman’s frustration with the lack of “fruits of peace” for the Jordanian population – particularly with respect to increased U.S. aid and more water from Israel.

The PLO adopted the Oslo process partly in order to repair its international image, which had deteriorated after Yasser Arafat’s Gulf War embrace of Saddam Hussein. The end of the post-Gulf War era meant that the PLO chairman could stand in Tehran in December 1997, call for the end of sanctions against Iraq, and be invited to the White House within a month. He ignored President Clinton’s requests during another meeting, on March 1, 1997, to round up terrorist operatives; within 10 days, during a night-time meeting in the Gaza Strip, he gave a “green light” to Hamas to resume terrorist attacks against Israel. Arafat conducted himself as though the U.S. needed him more than he needed the U.S. Under such conditions, Palestinian compliance with every detail of the peace agreements with Israel was no longer a prerequisite for the PLO’s acceptance in Washington.

The Syrians, on their part, could brandish the threat of a new relationship with Iraq as an alternative to the peace process if Israel refused to accept a settlement on the terms Damascus was offering. As late as the end of December 1999, Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahaf informed the Iraqi parliament that Syria and Iraq had agreed to resume diplomatic relations. Just a few weeks earlier, on December 8, President Clinton had announced the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Finally, the end of the post-Gulf War period, and the decline of Pax Americana, made it far less certain that a Syrian-Israeli agreement would be accompanied by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as many have expected. While in the past, the Saudis may have hinted that an Israeli-Syrian peace was crucial to bring about a change in Israeli-Saudi relations, there are increasing indications that the Saudis will hesitate to normalize relations with the Jewish state even after a Golan deal.

A “Window of Opportunity”?

Israel has been acutely aware of the longer-term implications of the end of the post-Gulf War era. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who first identified the “window of opportunity” opened by the specific regional circumstances created by the Gulf War. Accordingly, Israel had to seize the opportunity and move quickly to reach peace agreements with its immediate neighbors before the regional balance of power shifted again – if, for example, Iraq or Iran acquired nuclear weapons. It was hoped, although never fully explained, that a new set of peace treaties would withstand the shifting balance of power against Israel in the future that would come with the closure of the window of opportunity and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The conventional wisdom in Israel has been that agreements between Israel and the states immediately along its borders, “the ring states,” will be beneficial for Israeli security against a resurgent Iraq or Iran in two ways. First, states ringing Israel, like Syria, will lose their motivation to invite the peripheral powers of Iran and Iraq to the Arab-Israeli sector of the Middle East if territorial differences are resolved. There has even been an expectation that an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would completely undercut the Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance, thereby isolating Iran and furthering its containment.

Second, there has been an expectation in Israel that, as a result of painful territorial concessions in the Golan Heights and West Bank, Israel will benefit from a massive boost in U.S. security assistance and technological aid. That certainly was the pattern set during the late 1970s when Israel received massive increases in U.S. foreign aid in exchange for deep territorial concessions to Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. Technologically, the Israeli Air Force was upgraded from Phantoms and Skyhawks to the latest-generation F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft. By analogy, Israelis could expect that a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights might yield billions of additional foreign aid dollars and space-based assets that would help Israel deal with long-range missile threats from Iran and Iraq.

Yet there are significant reasons to be concerned over whether this peace paradigm will actually work, in practice, and thereby help Israel cope with the shifting balance in the Middle East. The more conventional view of the Middle East sees Iraq or Iran intervening in Arab-Israeli affairs only when they are invited by one of Israel’s Arab neighbors – what might be called demand-side intervention. But alternatively, the involvement of Iraq and Iran is more likely motivated by their own hegemonic and geostrategic interests than by sympathy with the Syrian or Palestinian cause – supply-side intervention. The Syria-Iran axis grew out of the geostrategic considerations of the Iraq-Iran War, not in response to the Golan question. Those considerations, including their mutual antipathy to Turkey, will continue even after a Syrian-Israeli peace.

In fact, Middle Eastern states can be expected to be attracted to the newly-found power of a nuclearized Iraq or Iran rather than resisting their influence because the bulk of Arab territorial claims against Israel had been settled. In the late 1980s, even after the Iran-Iraq War was over, many Arab states, including Jordan, were pulled into alignment with Iraq because of the magnetism of its demonstrated military power. This is likely to continue to be the case for the Palestinian population of Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, known for its strong identification with Iraq during past U.S.-Iraqi confrontations, even after a peace settlement is reached.

Furthermore, there are good reasons to doubt whether billions of dollars in post-peace settlement aid to Israel will actually become available. The paradigm of increases in U.S. aid from the 1970s emerged largely because of the Cold War environment that existed at the time, for the peace process helped Washington block the spread of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Thus, during the global struggle with the Soviet Union, the domestic consensus in the U.S. Congress, which backed foreign aid increases, was far broader. Today, there are more pressing budgetary alternatives for lawmakers in Congress – increases in domestic programs or an enlarged tax cut. The difficulties the administration faced in obtaining approval for a post-Wye Agreement aid boost of $1.2 billion for Israel in the fall of 1999 is perhaps the best example of the new environment in Washington.

The Need for a Regional Perspective

Despite today’s more dangerous regional environment, the U.S. and Israel should not give up on the peace process. The peace process between Israel and Syria as well as between Israel and the Palestinians is very important. However, it is necessary to redesign the peace process to offset the end of the post-Gulf War period. First, the peace process needs a broader regional approach. For example, there is good reason to question the wisdom of Israel completing its territorial withdrawals only because it has reached peace treaties with its immediate adjacent neighbors, while it remains in a state of war with threatening peripheral states.

This was not a problem when Israel made peace with Egypt in 1979. Along Israel’s western front, Egypt was and remains the main military power. Peripheral states such as Libya and Sudan do not substantially add to the already considerable strength of the Egyptian armed forces. Neither state historically dispatched substantial expeditionary forces that altered the overall military balance. Thus, Israel did not have to insist on peace with both Libya and Sudan in 1979 as part of its agreement to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. Peace with Egypt, along with the extensive bilateral security arrangements instituted in the Sinai Peninsula, was a sufficient precondition for an Israeli withdrawal.

The situation along Israel’s eastern front, however, is very different. Historically, Iraq dispatched large expeditionary forces to the Arab-controlled areas of former Mandatory Palestine in 1948, and in 1967 its forward units reached the Jordan River. In 1973, one-third of the Iraqi ground order-of-battle (2½ divisions out of 7 divisions) crossed Syria to fight Israel in the Golan Heights. The Iraqi army expanded massively in the 1980s, due to the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, so that today, even after being degraded by the 1991 Gulf War, a third of Iraqi ground forces would approach the size of the entire Syrian army, and certainly be larger than the Jordanian army.

The eastern slopes of the West Bank’s central mountain ridge, which drop from a maximal height of 3,000 feet to an area that is 1,200 feet below sea-level, form a 4,200-foot steep barrier against an armored assault on Israel’s narrow coastal plain to the west. This barrier does not constitute a shield against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Israel and Jordan are at peace and the standing army of Jordan is relatively small. Israel’s diplomatic drive for secure borders in the territories administered since 1967 has been directed especially against Iraq, whose massive ground forces would provide the central backbone of a military effort against Israel along its eastern front.

Drawing Israel’s final borders on the basis of its relations with the Palestinians and Jordan alone would only increase Israel’s vulnerability, without addressing one of the main sources of the military threat in the east. The same analysis applies to Israel’s future borders with Syria.

The Middle East is moving into a period of much greater instability as the post-Gulf War order, based on Pax Americana, collapses due to the challenge of new regional forces. What Israel needs is a Middle East security process that goes a long way towards stabilizing the region as a whole, before the high expectations of a peace process can be met. The peacemaking paradigm of the last few years has been flawed: more Arab-Israeli peace treaties, supported chiefly by massive U.S. foreign aid, were supposed to help stabilize the Middle East region and even lead to its transformation through the isolation of Iraq and Iran.

However, experience points to the sequence here being wrong. The Middle East must be substantially stabilized before the most intractable territorial differences between Israel and the Arab world can be seriously resolved. That was the sequence that led to the birth of the peace process at Madrid to begin with: peace negotiations were launched after a regional shift in the balance of power caused by the Gulf War, and not earlier. Of course, the U.S. and Israel may very well seek to arrest the destabilizing trends in the Middle East by completing an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty by mid-2000, based on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But in the absence of a broader regional strategy, such a treaty is not likely to have an enduring impact on the stability of the Middle East region. In fact, since Syria’s ties with the hostile periphery will not be broken and American compensatory aid will be far less than what Israel is imagining, Israel could find itself considerably weakened.

What should Israel then do? In the short term, Israel should link its diplomatic positions on territorial issues concerning Syria and the Palestinians to progress in neutralizing the threats from Iraq and Iran. As already noted, Israel should not complete its territorial withdrawals on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks as long as it remains in conflict with major Middle Eastern powers like Iraq and Iran. Israel could turn to the coalition of states that support the peace process, especially the European Union, and suggest that if they want to make a contribution, they should insist on the return of effective monitoring in Iraq and the end of the transfer of Russian technology to Iran. For Israel, there has been something increasingly untenable about the EU position on the Middle East; the European consensus is often insisting that Israel take conciliatory territorial positions without alleviating the security risks emanating from Iraq and Iran in any effective manner. Moscow’s involvement in the peace process should also be made dependent on changes in its behavior in the Middle East.

In the longer term, Israel should propose the creation of a regional security system that would establish agreed principles of international behavior, or codes of conduct, and confidence-building measures for the entire area of Western Asia. Too often, the stability of the Middle East has been undermined because key states have refused to abide by minimal norms of international behavior that rule out violence as an instrument in negotiations. As a result, terrorism has frequently escalated in the region even between partners engaged in negotiations. Turkey, which is a democracy and a responsible member of NATO, could be an important cornerstone of such an effort. If the future leaders of Iraq and Iran accept these principles, the regional security system could include them as well. Increasingly, states are using these kinds of international institutions to prevent old conflicts from returning and new conflicts from erupting. Europe used NATO first to assure European security since 1949, and added the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1975. Southeast Asia has applied similar mechanisms through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Israel is obligated under the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty of Peace to explore the creation of a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME), but to date nothing has been developed in this regard. These multilateral mechanisms, by themselves, cannot guarantee that conflicts will not break out in the future. But by offering regular contacts between members of a given region, they reduce the chance of unintended conflicts that frequently occur through misinterpretations by leaders.

Finally, a regional security system can help regulate the involvement of external powers in the Middle East in a positive manner; states adhering to the rules of the system should be those that become eligible for international assistance and support, while those who refuse to accept its norms become more clearly identified as destabilizing rogue states, whose behavior must change before they can benefit from any serious international backing. When the norms of international behavior in the Middle East are fixed by a clear code of conduct, states will be less prone to alter their approach to negotiations in accordance with fluctuations in the balance of power or the status of Pax Americana at a given moment in time.

Revising the Timeline of Negotiations

A second shift in the classical approach to peace must relate to the timeline of negotiations. Negotiation schedules unfortunately are very close to political schedules. American presidents and Israeli prime ministers like to finish off peace deals within their four-year terms. Governments today do not like to bother supporting longer-term policies, in part, because they do not get to share in the glory.

Right now diplomats are still driven to get to a White House lawn ceremony quickly, give Israel a pile of cash, and hope for the best. There is no policy of planning for the future. If President Truman had followed this sort of timeline with respect to the Soviet Union, he would have never initiated the policy of containment (after all, why give a future President Reagan the photo-op?). In foreign policy, there are achievements that can be reached in the short term, but a successful policy requires investing in longer-term timelines, as well.

But not all processes take four years. There are elements of Israeli-Palestinian differences that can be resolved relatively quickly. But frankly, there are many issues, like Jerusalem, that will take a long time to settle. Moreover, if Israel should ultimately seek to link its final pullbacks to the trends toward stabilization in the broader Middle East region, it simply might take many more years until Iraq and Iran actually join the peace process. Revising the timeline of negotiations is essential in order to avoid an impasse that produces an immediate crisis between the parties.

Defining Israel’s “Red Lines”

Finally, Israel itself should reassert its “red lines” in negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians. This is essential for protecting Israeli security, since Iraq and Iran will become more significant in the military balance. Too often Israelis have defined their diplomatic goal in the abstract, as peace alone, while the Palestinians have sought a highly specific goal of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. When one party thinks in the abstract while the other has well-defined goals, negotiations tend to favor the more specific negotiator. For coping with a more turbulent Middle East, Israeli diplomacy needs to return to the language of “defensible borders” when it addresses Israeli requirements from any future negotiations. These security requirements, moreover, are more understandable to the international community when they are set in a broader regional context rather than in the narrow context of Israel and the Palestinians alone. After all, Israel needs “security zones” for coping with tanks, not for Palestinian rocks.

The U.S. also has a very practical interest in clear Israeli red lines. There is always a temptation in Washington to encourage Israel to make just one more concession in order to help close a deal, without fully taking into account the subsequent implications. For example, in 1998, the Clinton administration pushed the Israeli government to accept a specific interim withdrawal of 13 percent from Judea and Samaria, even though this went beyond the approximately 9-10 percent that Israel was proposing. The Oslo Accords did not specify any percentage and left the decision solely in the hands of Israel. By having to meet Washington’s more conciliatory standard of an extra 3 percent, Israel had to move army bases, build by-pass roads, erect bridges, and undertake other construction initiatives – all together totaling $1.2 billion – which required additional requests for foreign aid. By keeping to the level of risk that Israel was willing to take upon itself of a 10 percent redeployment, the Clinton administration could have gotten a better deal for Israel and saved the American taxpayers a great deal of money.

This experience can be easily applied to the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The Clinton administration is considering to partly offset Israeli territorial concessions with billions of dollars of increased foreign aid, despite the likely resistance it might face in this effort from large segments of the U.S. Congress. Ha’aretz columnist Ze’ev Schiff has estimated that the Israeli request for a compensation package could reach $65 billion. What Israel needs more than cash is U.S. diplomatic support for its territorial positions. For example, if the U.S. insisted that Israel continue to maintain control of its Mount Hermon early-warning station, it could save American taxpayers billions of dollars in air-based and space-based alternatives that would not fully compensate for Israel’s present capabilities on Mount Hermon.

Border Adjustments are Not Enough

The transformation of Europe from one of the main zones of potential global conflict to the region of economic cooperation that it is today was not accomplished in a four-year term. Nor was it accomplished by a Western diplomatic strategy confined to solving a border conflict or two. Indeed, when the West sought to resolve the problems of European security in the 1930s by adjusting the border of Czechoslovakia alone, this action only invited war. In the 1980s when the West tried to build a secure Europe through a regional focus on the area from the Atlantic to the Urals, in the context of a regional security system, it succeeded.

In the Middle East, solving the Palestinian question alone will not change the destabilizing elements in the region’s strategic envelope, from Russia to Iraq and to Iran. But by first working to alter the more destabilizing elements in the region, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is likely to be more manageable. That is how the peace process got started in 1991 to begin with. The conditions that led to the Madrid peace conference confirmed that real peace required a regional approach and that American leadership across the Middle East was instrumental for stabilizing the area so that diplomacy could even begin. Such a regional approach to the Middle East provides the only point of departure that can assure long-term peace and security for Israel.

About Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.