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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel and the PLO Now Struggle for Leverage

Filed under: Hamas, Israel, Palestinians, Peace Process
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Wall Street Journal

Now that the drama surrounding the Israel-PLO signing ceremony has passed, it is critical to consider just what this accord means for the future of the Arab-Israel conflict. Are we speaking about a historical reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians that will bring a new era of stability to the Middle East? Or will many of the struggles of the past just be rechanneled within new parameters?

Perhaps the most important factor affecting the future course of events is that what the two sides agreed to is only an outline for an interim agreement; some of the most difficult differences between Israel and the Palestinians – like Israeli army deployments, borders, settlements, the future of Jerusalem or the return of the 1948 refugees – have been put off until the final talks begin. Even at the interim stage both will have very different views toward control over land and water as well as the admission of half a million of the 1967 refugees that the accord permits.

In other words, Israel and the PLO still have significant conflicts of interest; the interim period may inaugurate a new period of coexistence, but it will also be marked by a struggle in which both parties attempt to jockey for better positions toward those fateful final negotiations.

This creates an enormous dilemma for the PLO. The Camp David Accords envisioned the interim period as a kind of trial period for the Palestinians, according to which responsible Palestinian self-government would be rewarded by further Israeli steps. But the Palestinians cannot expect Israel to simply turn over east Jerusalem in three years time. They require leverage over Israel, and leverage means a continued struggle.

The continuing conflict between Israel and the PLO over such central issues best explains the ambivalence many Israelis feel about these accords. On the positive side, Israel negotiated with the PLO from a position of unquestionable strength; presumably cutting a deal with a weakened PLO was the safest Israeli option for undercutting the Palestinian fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Yet by saving the PLO from collapse in its distant exile in Tunis, did Israel simply give new life to arrival that was about to disappear as well as a beachhead? By cleaning Mr. Arafat’s image before the world, has Israel just placed the Palestinian cause in an improved position for winning the political battle over Jerusalem and statehood three years from now?

Will the PLO fighters that Arafat seeks to import into the territories serve as a bulwark against Hamas, or will they eventually turn against Israeli interests? On a different scale, the U.S. experimented in the 1980s with containing Iranian fundamentalism through Iraq, only to find this strategy unworkable in the long term.

The basic difficulty with determining the prospects for a real Israeli-PLO reconciliation is that their accord is overly ambitious. While called “Gaza-Jericho First,” it really covers the entire West Bank. The timetable calls for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza-Jericho in only six months, and just three months later, Israel is expected to redeploy its army out of Palestinian cities in the rest of the West Bank.

In Gaza-Jericho alone, there is insufficient time to set up a working Palestinian security structure. More importantly for Israel, there is little time to test if these Palestinian police will collaborate with Israeli security authorities, as Israel expects, or if they will protect militant factions out of internal political considerations.

Unfortunately, there is no performance clause in the agreement that makes progress from stage to stage conditional upon how PLO control works out. Since the accord was largely negotiated in Oslo in extreme secrecy, without the participation of the Israeli security authorities, it is not surprising that these sorts of flaws exist.

The real unanswered question is how the wider Arab-Israeli conflict will be affected. For the last five years, Western observers have attended to describe the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as the “core” of the military struggle between Israel and the Arab states; give the Palestinians their rights, it was asserted, and the wider conflict will melt away.

Israelis watching the mass expulsions of Palestinians by the Arab Gulf states in 1991 wondered whether the Arab world cared for Palestinian human rights or for the land of Palestine. In any even, Iraq and Iran have not been a part of the Madrid Peace Process. A Syrian-Israeli agreement would reduce the prospects of a Syrian-Israeli conflict, but it would no more halt Syrian military procurement programs than the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty slowed Egyptian military modernization.

The signing of an “agenda” for a Jordanian-Israeli agreement is still not a peace treaty. Jordan’s inclusion in any agreement covering the West Bank has been viewed by Israeli governments since 1967 as absolutely vital for the success of a stable peace. Promoting the internal stability of Jordan is perhaps even more important for protecting Israel’s national security than the proposed aid programs for the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli-PLO deal, in short, may affect the hostile intent of Israel’s neighbors, but does nothing about the advantages in military capabilities the Arab states have enjoyed against Israel since 1948. Will the PLO engage the Arab world’s strategic power to achieve its outstanding objectives or will it find that it has no real influence any longer, now that it has been locked into a narrow territorial base? In any case, Israel’s defense budget is not about to be slashed.

The Clinton administration has shown understanding for Israel’s remaining security problems – offering to offset Israeli territorial risks with aid and advanced American technology. But by asking Mr. Rabin to stand in a position of parity with Arafat at the White House signing ceremony, the administration put the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians on an equal footing, thereby implicitly backing Palestinian statehood, even before the interim negotiations have begun.

The degree of risk that Israel ultimately decides to assume after the interim period will be a function of the type of Middle East that emerges in the years ahead. Israel’s requirements for military positions in the West Bank have been part of its self-defense posture vis-a-vis the Arab world and not just against the Palestinians. Israeli options in three to five years will depend on whether the Middle East develops peacefully or remains the volatile, overarmed region that it has been until now.

Mr. Gold is director of the U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy Project, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.