Whether the Sharm el-Sheikh summit succeeds or not, at some point the violence in the Middle East will subside, and Israelis will ask themselves where do they go from here. Today a growing majority of Israelis, including many disillusioned members of the peace camp, are stating that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is not a partner for peace. They are right, but implied in this view is that Israel has no diplomatic options for the future.
Much of this soul-searching misses the point. The main lesson of the Israeli-Palestinian explosion of the past two weeks is not that diplomacy is finished but rather that the core assumptions of the Oslo agreements have been shattered and were probably not workable to begin with. Anyone perusing the original 1993 accords will find that the entire approach to peace was structured upon concepts of cooperative security (joint patrols) and broad regional development programs covering the whole Middle East.
In short, Oslo was dependent on the good intentions of the parties for its vision of intimate cooperation to work. Oslo’s architects spoke incessantly about the importance of preserving relations of personal trust, frequently ignoring the fact that sometimes parties have real differences that cannot be papered over by the atmospherics at a diplomatic dinner. Even the White House once put former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat into the map room for a long lunch over Middle Eastern couscous, hoping to create chemistry between them after an outburst of violence in 1996. But international relations are not interpersonal relations.
Additionally, it was assumed that by moving to solve the Palestinian issue, Israel would trigger a new era of relations with the Arab world. For this reason, Oslo’s defenders were willing to concede Israel’s long-term claims for a territorial compromise based upon defensible borders in the West Bank, and were even willing to consider, at the recent Camp David summit, an Israeli pullback from more than 90 percent of this territory.
This was not the diplomatic approach taken at the original Camp David summit by Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin. Israel indeed pulled out of the Sinai Peninsula as a result of its peace accord with Egypt. But it instituted security arrangements in Sinai, including zones of limited forces, in the event of a reversal of Egyptian intentions in the future. Like the hard-nosed Soviet-American arms control agreements of the 1980s, this early Middle East diplomacy contained a safety net for verifying treaty violations and even coping with a return to hostile relations. But no such safety net was weaved into Oslo.
A new Middle Eastern diplomatic process is possible if Israel is guided by several critical lessons. First, after this spate of violence, Israel would be mistaken to just go back and assume that Palestinian intentions toward Israel had now permanently changed. Trust can be built over time. But as Israel considers its position on permanent boundaries, it must insist on defensible borders that it can defend by itself rather than placing primary reliance upon Palestinian intentions alone. This was the original spirit of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.
Additionally, while Israel should seek to broaden its relations with Arab states, many of these relationships can collapse like a house of cards in the event of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. When the peace process began in 1991, Iraq was completely neutralized, but in this last crisis, it threatened Israel in a manner reminiscent of the expeditionary armies it dispatched through Jordan and Syria in 1948, 1967 and in 1973.
In a future Middle East, in which Iraq is completely free of sanctions and brandishes new deterrence weaponry, Israel will have to contend with an era of mutual deterrence, in which Iraq’s renewed conventional strength will have a far more profound impact on the military balance than in the past. Israel would be foolhardy to depend on its diplomacy with the Palestinians for its security in the Middle East in lieu of holding the Jordan Valley, with the steep 4,200-foot incline it poses against potential attackers from the east.
The new diplomacy for the Middle East will not be easy and will take time. It cannot be based on going back to the administration’s proposals at Camp David. A secure future for Israel requires focusing on the military capabilities in the region, without depending on intentions alone. But if Middle Eastern diplomacy becomes more realistic, then at least it will not produce the kind of crashing disappointment of the past few weeks, which has left the Middle East without peace and far more insecure.
Ambassador Gold served as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1997 through 1999. He was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Wye River Peace Talks in 1998.